Change is on the menu

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Secondary students seem to need more inducements than primary pupils to eat well in school, but with a year still to comply with the Scottish Executive's Hungry for Success guidelines, the chips and chocolate regime is changing, Sue Leonard reports

It is 12.55pm at Coltness High, near Wishaw, and the lunch bell has just gone. Hundreds of pupils bolt from their classrooms in search of food. They head in three main directions: to the front door, the assembly hall (to eat their home-made sandwiches) or the dining room.

The canteen is in an unattractive 1960s edifice and is smaller than you would expect for a school of 832 pupils. The room is plainly painted and the only noticeable nod to the healthy eating message are well worn blinds on the windows with pictures of apples on them.

Coloured round, square and oblong tables are filled with pupils from every year, catching up with gossip. Despite its slightly shabby appearance, there is a warmth about the place.

Peter Macfarlane, a second year pupil, is eyeing up the menu. The 13-year-old opts for lentil soup with some bread.

"I used to get lots of chips and fatty burgers," says Peter, who also takes some fruit juice.

It is about a year since the school's lunch menu was overhauled and replaced with healthier options. Previously burgers, chips and pizzas were a daily feature on most children's plates.

Now pupils are offered a wide choice, from pasta and curried chicken with rice to baguettes and wraps. Burgers still appear but they are low fat, low salt, oven-cooked burgers. Chips, which are off the menu two days a week, are now chunkier to cut down on their fat ratio.

Before the menu changed, sixth former Ashley Beattie, 17, didn't eat school meals but she did drink a lot of Irn-Bru, which was available from vending machines. As part of the new health drive, fizzy drinks have been removed and chocolate and crisps are being phased out.

"When I first came to the school I used to go to the chip shop for lunch,"

says Ashley. "Now I enjoy the food here and I drink water."

There are two vending machines in the canteen. One has crisps and chocolate and the other has fruit juices. Staff monitor them to make sure children have eaten lunch before they look to snack further.

Vending machines are the last great battleground for schools. Teachers and staff can control the canteen menu but not the snacks that pupils can buy with their own money. What's more, vending machines are a useful source of extra income.

Across Scotland, attempts are being made to reduce the amount of fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate available in schools. Some councils have taken or are taking steps to remove them altogether. The policy currently depends on where you live. Scotland could, however, follow England's lead on a blanket ban of fizzy drinks and junk food from vending machines in all schools, when new nutritional standards are enshrined in law next year.

A Bill, due to be introduced to the Scottish Parliament sometime next year, will restrict the food on sale to healthy options and place a duty on local authorities to promote the uptake of school meals. A consultation document on the Health Promotion, Nutrition and Schools (Scotland) Bill is being drawn up and will review the availability of fizzy drinks and snacks. It could "potentially" result in a ban, a Scottish Executive spokeswoman says.

Such a move, however, could lead to a further drop in uptake of school meals. Numbers have already dipped since the menus became healthier.

When fizzy drinks and chocolate were removed from sale in the canteens of secondary schools in Angus after the summer break, there was a quiet revolt. Uptake of school meals fell from 42 per cent to 35 per cent.

Ian Shepherd, head of facilities services at Tayside Contracts, which provides food and drinks for schools in the region, believes the complete removal of the high fat snacks was "a significant contributory factor".

"Children are voting with their feet," he says, but he hopes that a new limited line of low calorie drinks and some confectionery might woo them back.

Secondary schools have until December 2006 to comply with the Scottish Executive's Hungry For Success guidelines, but at Coltness High, even more changes will be seen from January, with chips and burgers available only on an occasional basis.

"It was a conscious decision to stop selling fizzy drinks," says depute head Nancy Wilson. "We are going to stop chocolate when they come back after Christmas. Because it is being done gradually, they accept it."

The healthy eating message does appear to be getting through to pupils.

Those that use the canteen have welcomed the changes, which, they say, give them much greater choice.

Kelly Kain, 15, had stopped eating school lunches because, she says, they were making her fat.

"It was all unhealthy stuff. I was eating burgers and chips. It was not good for me," says Kelly, who is now a regular in the lunch queue and opts for a sandwich rather than crisps or chocolate at break time.

The school uses home economics lessons to try new recipes on young pupils and get their views on whether the dishes should appear on the school menu.

Taste buds are changing, but catering staff and the children know it takes time to adapt.

Scott Gavin is eating a baked potato with cheese. The 13-year-old has chips twice a week. He wasn't sure he would like the new ones when the menu changed last year. "They are chunky and taste different, but I like them,"

he says. "You need to get used to them.

"The food is healthier and it is better for me."

While the choices being made by the children are healthy, there is a noticeable lack of fruit and vegetables on children's plates, but many argue that they get lots of them at home.

The catering manager, Margaret Jackson, sees progress being made as children begin to make informed healthy choices. She knows, though, that change and increasing uptake of school meals will take time.

It is hoped that television screens in the canteen and a reward scheme for choosing healthy dishes will help boost numbers. The food tastes good but there are still too few pupils eating it.

About 280 pupils pass through the canteen in a day and that includes over 100 who buy sandwiches at break time. The rest bring in their own sandwiches, buy something from the healthy tuck shop, and around 250 fill up on food from local shops.

"We do lose children on the days we do not have chips, but I think it is the way to go," says Ms Jackson, who struggles to get children to eat oily fish and fruit.

The future, though, looks promising. "We are getting a knock-on effect from the primary schools," she says. "The children know what yoghurt is. When the kids come up, they are more aware there is a healthy choice."

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