Chips are off

14th January 2005 at 00:00
East Ayrshire has crossed out the unhealthy options from its school menus, Su Clark reports

Eight-year-old Lee Anderson is lucky he lives in East Ayrshire.

An aspiring footballer, he is keen to stay healthy and that means watching what he eats. "You can't be fat and a footballer," he says, as he sups on carrot soup. "I always take the healthy option."

Fortunately for him, East Ayrshire is in the vanguard of schools that offer more than just one healthy option. Everything on the menus, introduced this year, has health in mind. Gone are the high fat, sugar and salt options. Likewise the processed foods. Across all 55 primary and secondary schools in the region, unhealthy choices have been all but wiped out.

"This council has been looking at healthier options for a few years, but with Hungry for Success funding we have really been able to go for it," says Robin Gourlay, head of service at East Ayrshire.

"I believe you should have a raison d'etre for what you do, and that it should be educational and healthy. Otherwise you might as well hand over the service to the burger van outside. We still have a fast-track menu at secondary schools, but even there we are phasing out the unhealthier options."

Mr Gourlay is the driving force behind the overhaul of East Ayrshire's meals service. Working with his top area and catering managers, he has produced a service that is providing interesting, good food in a modern environment. Many of the meals seem exotic to the children, especially the younger ones.

"We can't educate them in eating more heathily if we don't broaden their knowledge of food," he says. "So we based our menus vaguely on the Mediterranean diet, which we know to be healthy, and added in other types of meals."

Besides pasta Italienne and roasted Mediterranean vegetable couscous, pupils can choose chicken korma on Monday of week one; sweet and sour pork a week later; Moroccan lamb and couscous on Wednesday of week three and jambalaya on Tuesday of week four. The hope is that pupils will become familiar with each meal over time. Small tasters in plastic cups are sometimes passed round, but it has to be done carefully.

"You can't overload a child's plate with vegetables or new foods just because it's healthy. There'd be tears," says Liz Leggate, an area manager and member of the working party that developed the new menus. "You can only give them little bits and hope they eat them. But it works. More children are asking for vegetables."

But not only the pupils needed to be educated about healthy eating. Staff have been trained in the past year, and seminars have been held for parents to inform them of the changes and to give them simple cooking techniques to try at home.

"When it first started, some parents felt we were not providing proper food for their children," says Mr Gourlay. "One upset parent told me her child had eaten nothing that day, so she'd had to buy her something on the way home. I asked her what she'd bought her. 'Crisps,' was the reply."

Mr Gourlay and his team are monitoring feedback about the new menus at all schools but Lee's school, Hurlford Primary, is getting particular attention. Catering manager Margaret Paterson has been given a budget to buy in as much organic produce as possible, even down to the mini milk cartons. At no extra cost to the parents, it has become the first organic school in the country, with more than 50 per cent of ingredients being organic.

"We are throwing a pebble in the water," says Mr Gourlay. "We'd like to expand certain aspects to the rest of our schools but we have to wait to see what comes out of the pilot. There are cost implications as well as issues with supply chains. We want to keep buying our produce locally, and sourcing something organic locally might not be possible."

But putting more focus on non-organic healthy options also has cost implications. The East Ayrshire school meals service is not a commercial enterprise. Nutrition and education are priorities, rather than being a source of profit. Every student has a daily food allowance of 72p, which after adding on staff, premises and cooking overheads, rises to pound;1.90. But the council only charges pound;1.45. That the local authority should subsidise children's meals is "as it should be", says Mr Gourlay with a shrug.

Meanwhile, Lee and his schoolmates are satisfied with the changes and are happily wolfing down what's on offer.

Cieron Millar and Ryan Taylor aren't bothered about the health side, but they reckon it tastes much better. Jamie McNair agrees. Up until this year he's stuck with packed lunches, but he's been converted to school meals simply because they are so much tastier.

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