Food, glorious food?

School dinners are a vital part of childhood – at least they should be.

Food, glorious food?

School dinners are a vital part of childhood – at least they should be.

It was seven years ago when Jamie Oliver first raised the nation’s awareness about what we were serving our children. A great deal has changed but there are still battles to be fought to improve school meals. With ever tightening budgets and increasing costs of food, fuel and power, serving school dinners that are nutritious, balanced and tasty is even more challenging.

Following Oliver’s campaign, tough standards were brought in to ensure meals were nutritiously balanced. They included a ban on selling junk food, such as crisps, fizzy drinks, chocolate and cereal bars.

State schools must follow the standards and most independent schools have chosen to follow them. Newly-created academies, like independent schools, do not have to adhere to the standards.

A survey by the School Food Trust has revealed that nine out of 10 academies are selling junk food and making between �3,000 and �15,000 a year by doing so. Oliver has written to every MP urging them to back an Early Day Motion to make the standards universal.

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A+ set up a panel of four experts to discuss the future of school dinners, the challenges schools face in the kitchens and what we, as a nation, need to do to ensure future generations have healthy eating habits. Or are we just slipping back into our bad habits?

Our panel included: chef Rob Rees, Chris Creed, owner of Creed Food Services which supply independent and state schools, Jeremy Benson, owner of Bensons Juices and Sarah Parker, Catering Services Manager of Cheltenham Ladies’ College.

Q: What is the single biggest catering challenge schools are facing today?

Sarah Parker: “One challenge is the high cost of fresh food, such as vegetables, milk, fruit and meat. Processed or junk food is far cheaper. But the biggest challenge is finding good committed staff who want to come into the industry. School catering has never been recognised by the public as a professional industry.”

Rob Rees: “You would think our culture would recognise school catering is part of the hospitality industry but it doesn’t. It’s a hugely challenging job. I defy anyone to spend an average of 70p per meal and develop tasty, well-balanced and nutritious meals for up to 400 people at a time.”

Q: Why do you think school dinners and the skill needed to produce them is so undervalued?

Sarah Parker: “School meals are simply seen as a means to an end. Children and staff aren’t encouraged to sit down and socialise over the meals. It’s a case of grab it and go, whether they are at home or at school.”

Rob Rees: “It doesn’t have to be that way. I have seen schools where headteachers in independent schools, have allowed more times for meals, invited parents and teachers to sit down and eat with the children and socialise. It takes a huge cultural change but it can be done.”

Chris Creed: “Schools have a role to play in helping children understand the value of good food and how to appreciate it. Sports also plays a huge part in developing healthy young people. If more children participated in sports and had more nutritionally balanced diets then we would see a reduction in childhood obesity.”

Q: Should nutrition and food standards be made universal for all schools?

Chris Creed: “There is a need for food standards and indeed there is a market for it. We have seen a move towards more high quality products.”

Jeremy Benson: “I am not sure parents would want to see more money spent on school meals rather the education of their children.”

Rob Rees: “Food education is across all incomes. Don’t think it is just people on low incomes who do not understand the need for a balanced diet. Those standards in food in schools have made a difference. We have seen an increase in school meal numbers year on year.

“If we lose control and allow academies to bring back junk food. Why should we allow schools to do this? We wouldn’t allow schools to sell cigarettes to children so why junk food when we know that both of them can shorten a child’s life.

“We had this debate seven years ago when Jamie Oliver started his campaign. We shouldn’t still be going on about it.”

Sarah Parker: “Most independent schools follow the standards. It is money well spent to provide good balanced food to children.”

Q: How have school meals improved?

Chris Creed: “We supply the private and public sector and we have seen a huge shift to more healthier products. The quality of food has improved and so has the awareness.

“Following Jamie Oliver’s campaign we saw a load of schools which had just provided packed lunches and cold meals start providing hot meals.”

Sarah Parker: “People have become more aware of the seasonality of foods and we have seen the return of old-fashioned varieties such as curly kale.”

Q: Has the relationships between schools and their food suppliers improved?

Sarah Parker: “We have a much better relationship with our suppliers. They advise us about what is in season and we work more closely. This has helped as food prices have increased and we have aimed to get best value.”

Chris Creed: “We work far more closely with our clients and provide a range of nutrition information on the products we carry. We also provide nutritional value software which helps catering staff to balance meals.”

Jeremy Benson: “People like the feel good factor that comes from a good working relationship.”

Q: How important is local food within the education catering industry? Do you see it becoming more important?

Sarah Parker: “When it comes to seasonal fruit and vegetable we are using local farms but often it is down to price. It has to be competitive.”

Chris Creed: “All of the meat we supply is British and it is competitively priced. We need to ensure that all the products we supply have the highest nutritional value.”

Rob Rees: “We, as a country, are 74% self sufficient which is quite high. While organic sourcing is important I am more concerned that people can afford to eat good balanced meals and have their five a day.

Whether it is organic or local is not the most important thing. Certainly it is an aspiration but it’s not essential for school food.”

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