Fife has found a fun way for pupils to avoid canteen queues yet still choose healthy options instead of fatty burgers and chips, reports Sue Leonard
Healthy food vans are now offering an alternative to eating in the dining room at secondary schools or, more significantly, at local chip shops and burger vans.
Small dining halls in schools with a large roll mean many pupils choose to go to local shops or fast food outlets rather than join long queues at lunchtime. Surveys by Fife Council found that significant numbers were going to street traders so they could eat with their friends outside.
Now Body Fuel vans, owned and run by the council, offer "fresh food in the fresh air" at four Dunfermline schools taking part in the pilot scheme. The project, the first of its kind in Scotland, has been so successful that a central production site is being set up at one of the schools to keep up with demand from customers.
The mobile vans pull up either outside the school gates or in the playground or car park of Queen Anne High, St Columba's High, Woodmill High and Waid Academy and pupils can choose from a range of healthy options including home-made soup, baguettes, pizza slices and baked potatoes.
Keith Breasley, the catering services officer at Fife Council, told the Hungry for Success - Next Steps conference on school meals in Edinburgh last week about the innovative project.
"Most dining areas we have in Fife are crowded to capacity and beyond," he said. "Teachers are often loathe to open other areas of the school because it has repercussions on supervision and cleanliness.
"We looked outside the school and saw kids streaming out to local traders and queuing at vans. We decided we should offer an alternative to the dining room and to the street traders already out there."
The council met local traders to tell them what they were doing and to encourage them to include healthy options in their food vans. "One thing we did not want was a chip and sandwich war," said Mr Breasley.
The initiative, which started at some schools in the spring, has led to fewer children going out of the school grounds at lunchtime and a noticeable reduction in long queues in school canteens, the council reports.
Initially the food was prepared at each of the four schools, but the canteen staff can no longer keep up with demand and it is to be made up at one central site.
Chris Kam, the council's school food co-ordinator, said: "The vans have been very popular. We have had lots of positive feedback. It shows that healthy food can compete successfully with fast food.
"The street traders in Fife have been influenced by us to sell healthier items like home-made soup and brown rolls."
Last month, school inspectors reported that the quality and quantity of food provided in primary and special schools across the country was improving, but more work was needed to encourage more pupils to eat the meals and to make wise choices.
The Hungry for Success conference heard about the challenges facing schools, particularly secondaries, and initiatives underway to encourage more pupils to fill up on healthy food. Teachers spoke of the difficulties in changing children's eating habits, inadequate dining hall space and external competition. They were told that some councils are working with local shops to encourage them to offer more fruit and healthy options.
At Newbattle Community High in Dalkeith, an internet cafe has been successful in increasing the numbers eating school meals.
The importance of a whole school approach and partnership working was also discussed. West Lothian Council was held up as an example of good practice for the guide it has produced in conjunction with Lothian Health Board to help teachers in primary schools promote food and health as part of the curriculum.
The guide includes national guidelines on nutrition education, information on why what we eat is important, cultural influences on food and what schools can do to influence eating habits.
Phyllis Wood, the education officer at West Lothian Council, said: "This guidance extends the advice so that everybody knows where we are going and what role they are expected to play in that."
The council reported that it has made progress in meeting nutritional standards by changing from offering frozen to fresh vegetables. Taster sessions let pupils try new recipes in the hope of encouraging them to use their school canteen and parents are invited in to taste the food in the hope they will encourage their children to opt for school lunches.
"We have gone a long way but there is still a long way to go," said Ms Wood.