Let's not make a meal of healthy eating

30th April 2004 at 01:00
As I relaxed at the end of the Easter holidays, I enjoyed watching a television programme about healthy eating. This was broadcast from Raymond Blanc's restaurant, Le Manoir aux Quatre Saisons, in Oxfordshire, and celebrated the practice of eating home grown foods served to perfection.

They were cooked for the minimum amount of time and served straight on to the plate to be eaten immediately.

Then I returned to school and had a school lunch.

I have sampled school meals across a wide range of authorities and, because of our European links, across Germany, France, Austria and Norway. I am aware of the variations in quality which exist and have tried to understand where we have gone badly wrong.

Many of our schools serve very good meals which have been cooked on the premises. In fact, when I became headteacher, Queensferry Primary produced award winning meals which were understandably very popular with the pupils and their parents.

Once a year, parents of P1 pupils were invited to join their children for a school meal in order to appreciate both the quality of the food and the ethos of the dining room. Some also enjoyed returning to the school they had attended as pupils.

In addition, because the cook was on the premises early, she opened the hatch and offered breakfast to pupils who had left home having eaten nothing.

I was proud to take any guest to the dining hall to share in the culinary delights of that kitchen.

Some years ago, our kitchen was scheduled to be upgraded but, due to funding cuts, this did not happen. The cooking facilities have been retained but are not used. Instead, we went over to a system of transported meals.

These meals are cooked at another school in the morning, packed into containers and transported to our school, arriving at about 11.30am, ready for the lunch break which starts at 12.30pm. As a result, French beans and broccoli, which probably started out crisp, green and appetising, end up a pale shade of grey, soft and mushy. This is hardly the way to encourage our youngsters to enjoy vegetables.

This is not to lay blame at the door of our dinner ladies, who would much prefer to be in charge of their own kitchen, preparing vegetables and cooking homemade soup. Our pupil council has also repeatedly requested a return to the previous arrangements where meals were cooked on the premises.

Rather, this is a plea that if we are at all serious about trying to improve the eating habits of our children we recognise the task is a complex one which will require complex solutions.

Snack Attack is an excellent initiative in Edinburgh whereby fruit is distributed free to the youngest pupils and to children who are entitled to free school meals. This has resulted in many of our pupils benefiting from fresh fruit daily.

Regrettably, many schools still resort to tuck shops with unhealthy snacks and drinks machines to raise funds. This is another issue which needs to be addressed.

It is also disturbing that so many families who are entitled to free school meals for their children choose not to take up their entitlement. When questioned, these parents often indicate that the poor quality of school meals is a main reason for their children's decision.

Many children choose to have packed lunches. The contents of these are usually more expensive than a school meal and are often less healthy, including crisps and carbonated drinks for example.

There is little doubt that we need to start paying greater attention to the views of our pupils and, more importantly, responding positively where their concerns are justified. Given the current national concerns about childhood obesity, one wonders why we can't do more to provide healthy, attractive and palatable school lunches. This happens in other countries.

Currently, lunch times are still rushed with too few adults on duty to supervise entry and exit, promote good table manners, ensure the virtues of a clean floor and coax all to eat everything on their plates. These are all aspects of good citizenship, you might argue.

Am I becoming part of a nanny state? Do I have the right to talk to parents about what their children should eat? I would rather have a national push so that all children have an entitlement to a healthy lunch at school.

Sheilah Jackson is headteacher of Queensferry Primary, Edinburghwww.queensferry-ps.edin.sch.ukIf you have any comments, e-mail scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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