Harvey McGavin meets a school chef who runs her own kitchen, transforming what her children eat
Glyn Road outside Rushmore primary school in Hackney is a typical inner-city high street. There are grocers, a bakery, a hardware store, funeral directors and barbers. But one type of shop outnumbers them all: the fast-food outlet. Children who walk this way to school will pass three chippies, a couple of kebab shops, as well as Chinese, Nigerian and West Indian takeaways.
Shops such as Chickin Lickin' do little for a children's spelling, never mind their diet, but healthy alternatives to their deep-fried fare are hard to find. At Rushmore, however, they are educating young palates as well as young minds, and serving up nutritious dinners at a fraction of the price of those down the road.
Until 18 months ago, the dinners at Rushmore, like those at the London borough's 75 other primary schools, were provided by Initial Catering Services, one of the country's biggest contractors. But after a dispute with the council, Initial suddenly withdrew, leaving schools with a stark choice - find a new contractor or go it alone.
One school, Thomas Fairchild, resolved on independence. The head wanted good nutritious food from local sources. He now employs a management company to oversee the kitchen and has linked up with the Soil Association's "food for life" initiative. Now all the meat is organic and the fruit and vegetables come from local suppliers.
The school's kitchen staff have re-trained as cooks and take an active role in menu selection and planning. Since being given greater responsibility they take far fewer days off sick, which has saved the school money and spared them the hassle of finding stand-ins.
Rushmore took a similar path. "We decided, after talking to parents and governors, that we were going to do it ourselves," says Liz Thompson, the head. Rushmore is a large, multicultural school with children from white, Asian and African-Caribbean backgrounds equally represented among its 470 pupils. The job of serving up something to suit all tastes - and keeping it cheap - fell to catering manager Cathy Stewart and her staff of four.
After 20 years as a dinner lady, Cathy saw this as a chance to get back to cooking rather than serving up someone else's ready meals. She began buying in her own supplies of fresh halal meat, vegetables and fruit, working on a budget of about 70 pence a head. Monthly meetings with a parents' committee - one parent is a nutritionist - resulted in menus featuring freshly made dishes such as tropical chicken and jollof (West African-style) rice, samosas and stews. Chips were relegated to one appearance a week.
The effect has been dramatic. In the space of a few months, the number of children eating hot school dinners shot up from 150 to around 280. And Ms Stewart's culinary efforts were recognised by Radio 4's Food and Farming awards which made her one of three finalists in the best food caterer category last year.
She was glad to see the back of the contractors and is scathing about the quality of their food - she once cooked some of their mince and asked them "Would you put that in front of your children?"
"All they do is get suppliers to give you food," she says, "and we can do that." So she did, persuading many of the same suppliers to pass on discounts. The savings have gone towards new utensils, a washing machine and a freezer for the school. In her capacity as a union convener in Hackney's schools, Cathy began advising other kitchen staff on going it alone. Around 30 schools have now done so.
"We would love it if all the schools decided to run their dinners themselves," she says. "Headteachers say they haven't got time, but I think that's a bad attitude. Heads and governors are mostly parents too and they should take an interest in what happens in the kitchen as well as the classroom."
As the dinner bell goes, pupils line up eagerly in the hall while Cathy and her team serve up. On the menu is homemade shepherd's pie, green beans, baked potatoes and three types of salad with fresh fruit or jam tart and custard for pudding. It's pretty standard fare, but freshly made that day, and it smells delicious. On top of tried and trusted favourites such as pizza, pasta and sausages, Cathy likes to introduce children to dishes such as curries and stir fries from the many cultures represented in the school.
To celebrate Black History Month in October, she cooked a feast of breadfruit, sweet potato, yam, green banana, plantain, ackee and saltfish, kallaloo and rice and peas, all washed down with fruit punch. And the verdict? "The kids loved it," she says.
The pride Cathy takes in her job shows in the food she serves. "I look after this place the way I would look after my house," she says. "And I look after the children the way I would look after my own children. For some, it is their only hot meal of the day."
Liz Thompson encourages good habits of diet and exercise that will stay with the children for life. She thinks they're getting the message. "I tell them you have to have healthy bodies to have healthy minds," she says. "But you have to balance it between what they will eat and educating them gradually about what's good for them."
"Catering for health", Department of Health and Food Standards Agency.
Price pound;5 from the Stationery Office. "Food for life", information and free curriculum pack, www.soilassociation.org