Healthy eating - Green gauge

13th March 2009 at 00:00
School food has come a long way since Jamie Oliver stepped in, but there's still plenty to chew the fat over

Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school dinners whipped up so much outrage against Turkey Twizzlers that they are no longer produced.

But, four years since the TV series, what else has changed in the school canteen? On the surface, quite a bit. The latest figures show that 98 per cent of schools in the country have signed up to the government's Healthy Schools programme, which stipulates that schools must meet 11 criteria around healthy eating, among other things. Nearly three-quarters of schools have obtained full Healthy Schools status.

The scheme - like a handful of other healthy food projects for schools - existed before Mr Oliver's TV series, but was given greater publicity by ministers afterwards to make it look like they were responding to the chef's crusade. Several schools had been championing healthy dinners long before the national panic about parents passing children chips through school railings.

One of the people credited with helping to inspire Mr Oliver's campaign was Jeanette Orrey, the catering manager at St Peter's CofE Primary School in East Bridgford, Nottingham, where she had begun instigating changes in the kitchen in 2000.

"I wouldn't have eaten the food we were serving the children at the time, so I decided to opt out of the local authority system and go back to basics, cooking from scratch in our kitchen using locally produced, organic and fair trade products," she says.

However, Mrs Orrey stresses that the battle to improve school dinners is far from over. "We've achieved a huge amount since 2005. But this problem took 20 years to create and it won't be solved in just five years," she says. "Our focus should now be education and making sure parents understand the importance of a healthy diet for their children."

Mrs Orrey is school meal policy adviser for the Soil Association and also a board member on the School Food Trust (SFT). The trust was one of a handful of quangos set up by the Government after Mr Oliver's campaign when Tony Blair allocated an extra Pounds 280 million for school meals.

Sponsored by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, the SFT offers schools plentiful advice via its website and a series of regional training centres. It also runs the Pounds 20m Let's Get Cooking network, which has seen cookery clubs spring up at schools across England.

However, the SFT's impact on schools appears to have been dwarfed by that of another group: the School Meals Review Panel, an expert panel that was set up to recommend new standards for school food. It published a report in October 2005 proposing radical changes, including banning unhealthy foods and fizzy drinks from schools' canteens and vending machines, and restricting the number of times a week pupils were served chips for lunch.

Some schools reported a backlash among pupils and parents when healthier options were introduced. But the new focus on hot, nutritious meals has gone down surprisingly well at Sandwich Technology School in Kent, where children now often eat fruit and vegetables they can barely recognise.

Kevin Douglas, head chef, says that the vegetables often bear little resemblance to the produce that staff and pupils see in supermarkets because it comes from an organic farm 200 yards away, where the farmer shuns aesthetically enhancing chemicals.

Much of the food that Mr Douglas serves is harvested less than 24 hours before. And the pupils tend not to mind how unusual the food looks because they have taken part in growing it on the farmer's allotments and in the school's Eden Project-style eco domes.

The catering team takes suggestions from pupils and, providing they fit the healthy criteria, they're likely to appear on the menu soon after. The team also allows pupils to taste dishes they're not sure about before buying to encourage them to try different things.

Mr Douglas, who was previously a Merchant Navy chef, received an Education Business Award for his work at the school. "We've noticed a significant reduction in the children being hyperactive after break when they previously ate sweets and drank high-energy drinks," he says.

I nvolving pupils in deciding on menus has also helped transform food at Charters School, a mixed 1,600-pupil comprehensive in Berkshire. There a pupil panel meets regularly with its catering company - which the panel had a hand in hiring - to discuss issues with the food and suggest ideas.

Marcia Twelftree, the headteacher who is also an SFT board member, began to implement changes in 2004 by sacking the existing caterer and getting the pupils involved in picking a new one. "Pupil involvement has been key," she says. "The food being served before was diabolical - grey burgers, chips every day and so on."

Improvements to the food were complemented by a refurbished dining area, including plasma screens and comfortable furniture. Lunches and breaks are now rotated to prevent big queues forming when all classes are let out at the same time. The school's cookery clubs have proved so popular that there's a waiting list to get on them. Free breakfasts are offered during exam periods, which encourage pupils to turn up on time and they're noticeably more alert, says Ms Twelftree.

"Educational performance has improved dramatically since the changes. It's difficult to determine how much of this was down to the food on offer, as improvements have taken place in other areas, but the dining improvements have helped," she adds.

Research suggests that there is a link between healthier food and better performance in tests. The Institute for Social amp; Economic Research and the University of Essex published a joint report in January, analysing the effect that Jamie Oliver's campaign had on the borough of Greenwich, which his programme focused on.

It compared the key stage 2 results of 13,000 children in Greenwich to those in seven other London boroughs, tracking trends from 2002-07 to gauge the impact of the healthier meals. It found that results of 11-year- old pupils were 8 per cent better in science and up to 6 per cent better in English. Absence due to ill-health fell by 15 per cent.

The researchers were said to be surprised by the speed of improvements and could find no explanation for the results other than the changes made to the food the children ate.

In spite of these promising results, and the high numbers signing up to the Healthy Schools programme, school kitchen staff insist that pupils' diets are still far from perfect.

Back at Sandwich Technology School, it may take more than links to an organic farm to persuade all parents of the benefits of healthier lunches.

The catering team already gets involved in parents' evenings, where parents have the chance to sample the food on offer. But Mr Douglas says his aim now is to ensure parents know how important their children's diet is. "We rely on parents to determine whether the kids have school meals rather than packed lunches. Our biggest problem is with parents sending in unhealthy packed lunches," he explains.

He is also concerned that the Government's new nutritional standards for schools may go too far. The standards, which will apply to secondary schools from September, set out the maximum and minimum proportions of their daily intake that pupils should get at lunchtime - covering energy, protein, carbohydrate, non-milk extrinsic sugars, fat, saturated fat, fibre, sodium, vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, iron and zinc.

Mr Douglas fears that secondary schools will have to hire a nutritionist or use a computer software programme to produce balanced menus that meet the strict criteria and cooks will lose their ability to add flair. Primary schools have had to cope with the standards since last year.

One school has already done much of the hard work. St Aidan's Church of England High School in Harrogate launched a website in 2007, catering4schools, which provides subscribers with recipes for healthy weekly menus, nutritionally analysed and compared to the Government's food-based and nutrient-based standards. At the last count the site provides more than 400 analysed recipes.

St Aidan's has also shown it is possible to make meals that pupils want, in spite of the stringent standards. The proportion of its pupils who have a meal at school - either breakfast or lunch - has increased in the past seven years from 30 per cent to 95 per cent.

Help is also available in some parts of England from a perhaps unlikely source: the food company that makes Toblerone, Miracle Whip and Terry's Chocolate Orange.

The Kraft "health 4 schools" initiative has been helping a third of schools in Gloucestershire, providing them with funding, volunteers and other resources to improve their meals. Rob Rees, a former chef who is now chair of the Kraft project, says: "It's probably one of the reasons why Gloucestershire is the county with the highest number of healthy schools in the South West."

The pressure to provide healthy, hot meals is trickier to cope with if your school does not have a kitchen. Research by The TES in 2005 suggested that about 1,500 schools in England could only provide cold lunches.

However, some areas are starting to fix this problem. School meal company Dorset Food Links has set up a new type of partnership with eight kitchen- less primary schools in Bridport. It opened a central kitchen in April 2007 and now works with schools and parents to provide hot meals, giving them some control over the menus and getting them to help source local, organic and fair trade ingredients.

Other schools will be recognised for their efforts when the winner of the best school dinner prize is announced at the first TES Schools Awards this summer.

But it is hard to be entirely optimistic when you see the NHS statistics. Figures recently published by the health service on obesity, physical activity and diet in England show that in 2007, 17 per cent of boys aged two to 15 and 16 per cent of girls were classed as obese, up from 11 per cent and 12 per cent respectively in 1995. Schools can only do so much by providing one school meal a day.

The Government has been encouraging schools and parents to teach pupils how to cook themselves, but Mrs Orrey believes more should be done.

"It should involve cookery classes and growing food - if kids grow it they're more likely to want to eat it as they take pride in what they've done," she says.

Perhaps the best judge of whether his campaign has been a full success is Mr Oliver himself. Although his attention at present seems to be focused more on opening a chain of food shops, his spokesperson told The TES he was still "very concerned" about the state of school dinners.


  • 98 per cent of schools have signed up to the Healthy Schools programme.
  • 72 per cent have already achieved Healthy Schools status.
  • Recent statistics published by the NHS show that just under a fifth of boys and girls aged between two and 15 in 2007 were classed as obese.
  • However, the same figures show that 21 per cent of children aged five to 15 in 2007 ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day, up from 11 per cent in 2001.
  • The figures suggest that the trend in obesity may be flattening out.


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