A culture of healthy eating in schools will require more than what's on the table. Fiona Leney reports
When Ruth Kelly announced in September that the Government was banning junk food in schools from next year, it raised wry smiles at the Weald school in Billingshurst, West Sussex, which now runs its own catering.
As pupils jostle in the queue for the chef's chicken dhansak with onion bhajees, rice and salad, assistant head Malcolm Peppiatt puts the Education Secretary's proposals - including the offer of more than pound;2 million to help schools improve their pupils' food - into perspective.
"They're offering about pound;2,000 a school to help with the change. We desperately need an industrial dishwasher in the kitchen and that's Pounds 5,000," he says.
Marge, dinner lady and human dishwasher, is stoical. She reckons it is worth the effort since the school replaced plastic prison-style trays with individual dishes, and disposable cutlery with steel knives and forks.
"It shows the kids that the food is worth eating," she says. "It encourages them to behave nicely at the table. But I'd like to meet that Ruth Kelly.
I'd tell her just what I think of her pound;2,000."
Among secondary heads there is a feeling that, although the initiative is welcomed, the Government needs to put its money where its mouth is if Ms Kelly's ideas are to work.
The school was lucky, says Mr Peppiatt. Its contract with catering firm Scolarest was up for renewal when dissatisfaction with the company's food led to the decision to go it alone.
This is not an option for all schools. Many are locked into long-term contracts with vending machine companies and private catering firms, and the problem is particularly acute in private finance initiative (PFI) schools.
In Merton, south London, for example, most secondaries are locked into a 25-year PFI contract which sub-contracts their catering - also for 25 years - to Scolarest. There are some 450 PFI schools in the UK and many are tied into similar long-term deals.
Back at the Weald, head Peter May joins us at the table. "It's in our interests to lead in this because youngsters who eat properly behave properly, and make better learners," he says.
But, he warns: "You can't go from unhealthy to healthy without cost. This year, we will make a loss, even though the number of pupils taking school meals has rocketed because of the start-up costs. We are not asking the Government for a permanent subsidy, just help with the initial expenses - like a dishwasher, or an industrial potato-peeler."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, agrees that the financial risk could be off-putting.
"Finance for any school is a matter of priorities, and there are many pressures on the school budget," he said. "Contractual get-outs are a problem. At the moment, schools are powerless to vary the contracts they've signed."
Part of the food revolution at The Weald was its decision last Easter to try out healthy vending machines, supplied by a small local firm. Sue Scott launched the Natural Vending Company in February to supply tasty, locally-sourced snacks and juices.
"It seemed surreal to me that vending machines were full of cola, crisps and chocolate while teachers were complaining that they couldn't control their kids in the afternoon," she says.
Enquiries suggest the idea is attractive to heads, who may be allowed under some contracts to install a health-snack vending machine alongside the traditional ones. But what of the consumers? Healthy foods have two huge disadvantages in the eyes of pupils - cost and healthiness.
"Our products are not that much more expensive than their competitors,"
says Ms Scott. "The average price is 50p, but our best seller, a flapjack, is 70p, and that doesn't seem to put anyone off."
So far, the firm's successes have been in the Home Counties, but talks are far advanced with two schools in Yorkshire.
In the Weald's sixth-form centre, students bought natural juices and, yes, the flapjack. It is helped, says Mr Peppiatt, by consultation with the firm before machines go in. Pupils try products and choose ones they like. Ms Scott says the firm is alone among its competitors for the healthy snack market to agree to install where there is already a traditional vender.
"We've got nothing to fear from them," she says. "Children are canny consumers. We are finding that once they try our products and find out what goes into their food, they choose our snacks."
As a national conference on healthy eating in schools agreed last month, education is one of the keys to success. The other, money, is harder to grasp. The promise of pound;220m over three years to help schools improve their food looks less generous when compared with estimates of need.
Suzi Leather, chair of the School Meals Review Panel set up by the Government, says pound;500m over the same period is needed to do the job.
And, she says, it would take nearly pound;300m to refurbish school kitchens and dining rooms.
And the dinner ladies at the Weald agree with that.
Natural Vending Company: telephone 01798 874621