Creative cooks beat the telly pundits to it

8th July 2005 at 01:00
Name: Thomas Fairchild community school, Hackney, London School type: community primary for pupils aged 3 to 11 Proportion of children eligible for free school meals: 65 per cent Results: at key stage 2 last year, 50 per cent achieved level 4 or above in English, 50 per cent in maths and 58 per cent in science

Forget Jamie's school dinners - try Thomas Fairchild's. This inner-London primary was giving pupils nutritious meals long before the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver turned the air blue in school kitchens.

Processed food has been banished, and meals are properly cooked using fresh ingredients sourced from organic suppliers.

The food is so good that staff now have meals with their pupils, and children who bring in packed lunches are an endangered species. On Fridays, the school opens its doors to parents so they can eat with their children.

The new moves have been made possible by the single-mindedness of the head, the goodwill of the kitchen staff and, crucially, by not making a profit out of feeding pupils.

Head Alasdair Friend says: "We did this for all sorts of reasons. One, I believe children deserve the very best food; two, living in an inner-city they need to understand where food comes from and what happens to it before it hits their plate."

Thomas Fairchild is a community primary with a nursery in the London borough of Hackney. It has more than 300 pupils, of whom two-thirds qualify for free school meals.

The food used to be so bad that even those eligible for free meals shunned it, says Mr Friend.

But three years ago, the private firm that provided lunches across the authority pulled out of its contract a year early, so the school decided to go it alone.

"Children have the right to the best food - it has an impact on their ability to learn," he says.

Unlike Jamie Oliver's televised crusade in Greenwich schools, changes at Thomas Fairchild did not happen overnight. And it wasn't easy, particularly for kitchen staff. "They had to think of new ways of working and they haven't always been convinced by what I've have been saying," says Mr Friend.

The dinner ladies say that while they like to see the children eating properly, preparing organic meat and vegetables means they now work harder than ever before.

"All the veg is fresh," says cook Tina Elmaz. "And it's not just one or two heads of cauliflower. There are boxes of it."

But the result is worth it. Outside the kitchen is a plaque that reads Organic Food Award Winner 2004, and the menu shows what all the fuss is about. Typical dishes include organic roast lamb, or a bean and cauliflower bake for vegetarians. Occasionally, there are burgers and pizzas, but they are home-made. And the food is culturally diverse, including chicken Marengo, Halal lamb kebabs or ackee salt fish and dumplings.

During my visit, pupils ate organic roast beef, potatoes roasted in olive oil, with carrots and cauliflower. It was as good as a quality pub Sunday roast, and most pupils left clean plates.

Deputy head Pauline Cargill says staff gently coax pupils into having vegetables or salad, and reinforce the healthy eating messages in lessons.

But pupils took a while to get used to eating food with real flavours.

The message has not sunk in with all parents. "One child in my class came in with a huge packet of custard creams for lunch the other day," she explains. "I just said, 'No, that's not your meal - have a cooked dinner.'"

Staff enjoy the meals, too. Year 2 class teacher Stephanie Dickinson has lunch with her pupils. "There's been a vast improvement," she says. "I didn't used to have school dinners, but now I do several times a week. The children like having us eating with them. It sets a good example. They can see what their teachers are eating."

Ingredients come from an organic farm in Norfolk, and pupils go on trips to see where the food comes from. Most had never seen a working farm before.

But how can the school afford it? In round figures, last year it received pound;66,000 in its budget for free school meals and generated around Pounds 24,000 from adults and children paying pound;1.60 for lunch.

After kitchen staff costs, it works out at pound;1 per meal, of which 67p goes on ingredients, the rest on energy, equipment and maintenance.

But Mr Friend plays down any suggestion that the school beat Jamie Oliver to it. "We don't feel that way," he says. "I'm happy it's now a mainstream concern and that schools will benefit. If other schools can learn from our experience, so much the better."

And has the change in diet improved pupil behaviour? That is difficult to prove, he says, but he feels sure that the school's breakfast club has had a big impact. Thomas Fairchild has links with a charity called Magic Breakfast, which supplies protein-enriched bagels.

"Children can't learn if they're hungry," he says. "I can't operate if I'm hungry either."

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