Menu for a healthier life

25th July 2008 at 01:00

Eight out of 10 pupils at St Margaret's Academy in Livingston eat a healthy school dinner and everyone stays on campus at lunchtime. At the Scottish Education Awards, the school scooped the health and well-being award in recognition of its achievements.

The right of secondary pupils to roam beyond the school gate at lunchtime has posed problems for those tasked with improving the diet of Scottish youngsters.

Next term, new government rules will come into force that will see crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks disappear from school menus. But with burger vans and supermarkets on schools' doorsteps, the danger that pupils will simply go elsewhere for their "fat fix" is very real.

St Margaret's, however, has achieved the seemingly impossible: pupils stay in school and 80 per cent of them eat school dinners.

According to headteacher Jim Cameron, this is not "a forced lock-down" but "positive compliance" from pupils. He acknowledges, however, that those caught off school grounds will receive a letter home to inform parents they are "leaving the safety of the campus". And depute heads George Burns and Sean McPartlin admit to staking out the local burger van from time to time, chasing any strays back to school.

But it is certainly not all stick and no carrot at St Margaret's.

Good partnership-working between pupils, cafeteria and school staff through Snag - the School Nutrition Action Group - ensures pupils' opinions about dinners are heard and their suggestions taken on board. It also ensures that when ideas are rejected, pupils know why.

It was due to a suggestion fed through Snag that the school added smoothies to its repertoire. And for the same reason Andrea Bradley, the cafeteria supervisor, has agreed to experiment with Quorn next term.

The school has also recognised the importance of creating a pleasant environment in which pupils want to eat. The dining hall is housed in the school's atrium. Light floods in through the glass ceiling and this, along with the additional height and an abundance of potted plants, creates a pleasant and airy atmosphere. If pupils prefer to eat outdoors, they can do so in the courtyard that adjoins the cafeteria.

And choice is the name of the game when it comes to the food on offer. There are cheaper prices for healthier options and pupils can choose from four counters: one with sandwiches, baguettes and wraps; a salad bar; hot meals; and Pasta King, a hugely popular addition. Today's choices of sauce are basilico, firecracker chicken and Louisiana chicken.

"Pasta King has been brilliant," says Ms Bradley. "It's well marketed with nice branded cups to eat out of. It looks trendy and there are a lot of popular flavours."

It is also a huge advantage not to have to guess how many are coming to dinner, she says, which allows her to cut down on waste. "If the kids are here, you can work out roughly how many meals you need to be doing and how many dishes of each product. In other schools, they don't know who will be coming through the door."

However, producing around 800 meals every day is no mean feat and in order to get all the pupils fed and watered, lunchtime is staggered and has been cut to 30 minutes.

Pupils are released for lunch for half an hour either at the beginning, middle or end of a 90-minute period half-way through the day, with the first sitting at 12.10pm and the last at 1.10pm.

S6 pupil and Snag member Jennifer Leonard says: "When the shorter break was introduced, a lot of people were not too happy and thought it was not long enough. But at the end of the day, the queues go more quickly, you get a seat and still have time to talk to your friends."

The staged lunchtime has had an unexpected benefit: pupil behaviour has improved in the second half of the day. Mr Cameron says: "Lunchtimes can be difficult to manage but because it's calmer now, with fewer pupils coming through at one time, conduct in the afternoon has improved."

Healthy eating, however, is not just seen as something for the cafeteria, says Mr Cameron.

The importance of a healthy diet is highlighted in personal and social education. St Margaret's staff work with associated primaries on Hungry for Success; pupils from S1-4 are encouraged to take part in the national Future Chef competition; and in S3, a week is dedicated to health when staff in different departments adopt the theme.

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