Forget chips, they prefer 'spag bol'

16th June 2006 at 01:00
Ditching the contract caterers had dramatic results. Jill Tunstall reports

Five years ago, when Jamie Oliver was still only a celebrity chef with a big advertising contract, Welshpool high school, in Powys, decided to revolutionise school dinners.

In those days, lunchtime was a fraught experience. Nearly 800 pupils queued for the 96 dining-room places, with meals served by staff suffering from low morale.

In 2001 the school decided to opt out of contract catering. It built a sunny conservatory, reduced the 11 choices to four, scrapped fizzy drinks and burgers, and put lasagne and fruit drinks on the menu. The pupils loved it.

Turkey burger consumption has fallen from a daily 120 to 40, and instead of 240 cans of cola a day, pupils drink 50 cans of fruit juice, 300 bottles of water and 200 milkshakes The daily fry-up of 120lbs of chips is down to 30lbs. The cost - pound;1.70 a meal - increased by 20p this year, the first rise in five years.

Last month, at a conference in Mold organised by the Organic Centre Wales to promote healthy sustainable food in schools, Welshpool was held up as the ideal model.

"School lunchtime was horrendous with the pupils queuing constantly, pushing and fighting," recalls Caroline Jones, the school's business manager.

"We decided to opt out of the authority catering contract, in what was an acrimonious split, and revamped the facilities."

Mother-of four Amanda Gittins was appointed catering manager. She heads a team of 14, which includes 11 mums now with 1,000 mouths to feed.

"Under contract we had to offer 11 choices, but the children wouldn't eat much of it," she says.

"I'd been there for 10 years and knew what the children wanted. I'm also a parent of children at the school and didn't want to be feeding them rubbish.

"They like home-cooked food. We can't make enough spag bol and lasagne. On Wednesdays we have a no-chip day and that's our busiest day. The parents have only positive things to say."

The school now has a switch card system so parents can credit the cards by cheque. The card also records dietary needs and allows parents a print-out of what their children eat.

"If parents have said 'no burgers' then the card won't swipe for them,"

says Mrs Jones.

Twelve months ago, with the help of the Mid Wales Food and Land Trust, they decided to go one step further and source as much local produce as possible.

Today, all the meat and vegetables are local and all the milk, cheese and milkshakes are Welsh organic. "We were doing it before Jamie Oliver had even thought of it," says Mrs Jones.

* The Assembly government is due to announce its plans for improving school food later this month. Its "food in schools working group", which includes dieticians, heads, caterers, public health experts and local government officials, will be publishing a report setting out a "whole-school approach to food and nutrition".

New standards effectively banning junk food from being sold in schools will come into effect in England from September.

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