FT Article

Goodbye, Mr Chips? The New School Dinners.

Chefs and entrepreneurs are showing that well-balanced meals can be made cheaply — and help children’s academic performance.

In 2018, the Food for Life campaign conducted a series of anonymous interviews with cooks, caterers, headteachers and suppliers across England and concluded that “the dark days of the Turkey Twizzler might be set for a return © Alexander Coggin

Hattie Garlick APRIL 12, 2019

What are your memories of school dinners? For me, culinary highlights include a spam fritter that, when squeezed between two plates, could fill an entire water glass with oil, and a “chicken” pie, the inverted commas actually appearing on the menu.

I shuffled into a school canteen for the first time in 1989 and ate my last ladle of congealing beans in 2003. That year, a survey conducted by the Food for Life campaign, which fights for better food for children, found that “the majority of school menus offer children a low-grade diet of dematerialised fish, mechanically recovered meat and poor-quality produce.” I am, in short, a survivor of the very darkest days of school dinners.

There were more sophisticated rules in place for dog food than school food. Yet change was coming. In 2005, Jamie Oliver went bananas over Turkey Twizzlers, and the following year crisps were banned and the deep-fat fryer restricted.

In 2014, the Universal Infant Free School Meals policy was introduced in primary schools. And 12 months later, the Department of Education issued revised standards, dictating that meals should include at least one portion of vegetables or a salad.

At this point, you could have been forgiven for thinking that school dinners had reached a basic universal standard. Yet, at the end of last year, the Food for Life campaign conducted a series of anonymous interviews with cooks, caterers, headteachers and suppliers across England and concluded that “the dark days of the Turkey Twizzler might be set for a return”.

According to Food for Life’s State of the Nation report, the cost of school-food staples such as pasta, cheese and yoghurt rose significantly in 2018. Caterers said the cost of some fruit and vegetables had increased by 20 per cent, which they attributed to Brexit uncertainty, specifically a lack of clarity over future trading arrangements. Eggs, one said, had risen 14 per

cent. The result? They are being forced to buy lower-quality ingredients.

In England, about one-third of children leave primary school overweight or obese, says Jeanette Orrey, a campaigning former school cook who co-founded Food for Life. “Increasingly, malnutrition is a real problem too,” she says. “For the poorest children, the ones whose parents are having to use food banks, their school dinner might be the only hot meal they get.” Victorian diseases such as rickets and scurvy are on the rise and these are linked to child food poverty.

The difficulty of balancing quality against affordability isn’t new. Local authorities were first handed the power to provide school meals for free by the Education (Provision of Meals) Act of 1906. A report in the National Archives illuminates one of the inaugural attempts. According to the City of Bradford Education Committee’s account of “a Course of Meals given to Necessitous Children from April to July, 1907”: “The problem it was desired to solve was that of providing a good variety of two-course dinners, which should be practical as regards their preparation and serving, should be up to a certain standard as regards the proportion of protein and fat, would cost between 1d and 1ód for the material used and would be enjoyed

by the children.”

But the Bradford pioneers refused to bow to the basic tastes of their diminutive diners. If the meals seemed daunting, “the fault lies with the upbringing of, and with the conditions under which many of the people live, rather than with the recipes”. Nor did their civilising project end with food. “Every effort was made to make the meals, as far as possible, educational.

There were tablecloths and flowers on the tables . . . From almost the first there was very little to complain of in the general behaviours of the children, for children soon respond to orderly and decent surroundings.”

1 in 3
Children in England leave primary school overweight or obese

By the 1940s, the first national nutritional standards had been established for school meals, which were served for free or for the cost of their ingredients. “School meals were a social and a civilising experience,” says Charles Webster, emeritus fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, whose research fields include the NHS and welfare state. In the 1960s, he was a teacher at a

Sheffield grammar school.

A charge for school meals was established in 1950. “They were churning out thousands of well-balanced meals a day, on site, to very sound nutritional standards and using very good ingredients,” Webster says. A typical lunch would be meat and two veg: “conventional by today’s standards, perhaps, but it was an absolutely splendid meal and the teachers would eat

alongside pupils.”

Yet danger was looming. In 1971, Margaret Thatcher, then secretary of state for education, “snatched” free milk from children over seven. Nutritional standards were scrapped in 1980 and, in 1988, compulsory competitive tendering required local authorities to invite bids from private catering contractors.

“[In the 1950s] they were churning out thousands of wellbalanced meals a day, on site, to very sound nutritional standards and using very good ingredients.”

Charles Webster, nutrition expert

The timing couldn’t have been worse. In the decade when frozen meals began to fill our freezers and junk food our high streets, catering companies could claim their nutritionally barren menus merely reflected economic pressures and their young customers’ terrible tastes. Hence the late 1980s and 1990s — when I was eating my “chicken” — were “the worst” years for school meals, says Webster. They were also those in which “obesity” became a buzzword.

Today, the approach at my children’s primary school appears to be the regular provision of familiar and economical staples. Stodge, in other words. As I type, my son shouts from the sitting room to report that he ate “baked potato and cheese” today. My daughter? “Cheese pizza.” Both were thrilled, mind you. In fact, they routinely beg to stay at school and attend teatime club, solely for the opportunity to dine on more “yellow food”, rather than the greens I force down them at home. But there are also schools attempting to meet the ambitious standards with which school meals were founded.

While it waits for new premises to be finished, Hackney New Primary School in east London is housed in a series of Portakabins, huddled beneath a bland and sprawling council estate. Within one of these inauspicious spaces, an earnest eight-year-old is explaining to me, “I didn’t used to like polenta. But when you try it, it’s actually very yummy, you know.” “It is, yeah,” confirms her friend. “But my favourite school lunch is lasagne — they put aubergine in it.”

Here, for almost two years, school dinners have been cooked by the chef Damian Currie. Currie started his school catering company Fuel for Learning two years ago with Nuno Mendes, executive chef at the award-winning Chiltern Firehouse. Why would anyone choose to swap the status and sophistication of a career in high-end restaurants for the unglamorous task of catering for kids? “I’ve got my own children now,” says Currie, “And the hours here are far better for family life. Plus, it feels meaningful.”

At St John, a prestigious London restaurant where Currie worked previously, main courses cost about £25, puddings another £10. At Hackney New Primary School, his total budget for both is about £2 a head. He has found it possible to stick to his high standards, however. “We don’t use any refined sugar or flour. We use lots of seasonal ingredients, which keeps costs down, and unusual, cheaper cuts of better-quality meat,” he says. There is only one option each day (plus a vegetarian alternative if the former includes meat), dramatically cutting back on the waste generated by the typical canteen model.

Today, he is serving vegetable enchiladas, roasted cauliflower and a fresh salsa of red and green tomatoes. Headteacher Siobhan Campbell talks the children through the menu each day, then staff and students sit together, serving themselves from shared plates on the tables.

Many children arrive here unfamiliar with the dishes. “At the beginning, reception pupils often look at the food and say: ‘Eurgh! What’s that?’” says Campbell. “But they see our older children tucking in enthusiastically and it persuades them to follow suit.” The children on my table pause a lively discussion about World Book Day costumes to take second helpings. I am asked politely if I wouldn’t mind passing the cauliflower.

Currie’s menus are devised to provide optimum nutrition and release energy slowly across the school day. “People tend to ask what impact the food has on the children’s learning or their physical health,” Campbell tells me. In the most extreme cases, they perceive radical changes in children’s health and energy levels, she says. “But, for me, the bigger triumph is in the fact that our staff and pupils sit down at the table together every day, all eating the same meal, at the same time. It encourages social skills, communication skills and a positivity about food. In today’s climate, the importance of that can’t really be underestimated.”

“On one hand, I think that food-related disease is one of the two major crises of our time, the other being climate change,” says Henry Dimbleby, the founder of fast-food chain Leon, who co-wrote the Government’s 2013 School Food Plan, laying out a blueprint for a better food culture. “On the other, there’s all the other stuff that comes with kids eating well and learning about food at school — better concentration, focus, creativity . . . a sense of fun and even hope.”

Last year, Dimbleby co-founded the Chefs in Schools programme. Like Fuel for Learning, it aims to tempt restaurant-trained chefs into state primary school kitchens. But the ambition is rather grander: 100 schools in half a decade. By the end of this year, he will have sent chefs into 16 schools. They are trained by Nicole Pisani, the former head chef at Yotam Ottolenghi’s

Nopi, who has spent the past few years overhauling the food at Gayhurst Community School, also in Hackney.

“We bake our bread, we get whole fillets of fresh hake delivered on Fridays and we make the BBQ sauce from scratch,” says Pisani. Before she arrived at the school, the kitchen was filled with powdered ingredients and frozen meals. “Staff were used to opening packets, reheating contents and cleaning. Now, even the pupils are learning to prepare vegetables, cook over fire

and forage for nettles.”

Chef Damian Currie’s budget per pupil

There is evidence that such interventions can have academic benefits. A 2013 study from the National Centre for Social Research found that those who had received healthy school meals had “shown improvements in academic attainment at Key Stages 1 and 2, especially for pupils with lower prior attainment”.

In 2010, the Children’s Food Trust published a 12-week study across six Sheffield primary schools and concluded that children were over three times more focused in the classroom after the nutritional quality of food was raised and the dining room made more welcoming. Not far off the conclusions that the Bradford Education Committee reached, 108 years


Meanwhile, about 10,000 schools across the UK currently serve food certified by Food for Life Served Here. The programme requires that a minimum of 75 per cent of meals should be prepared freshly on site, all eggs must be free range. All ingredients free from additives, artificial trans fats and genetic modification.

“We don’t use any refined sugar or flour. We use lots of seasonal ingredients, which keeps costs down, and unusual, cheaper cuts of better-quality meat.”

Damian Currie, Fuel for Learning

Meeting these terms might be hard but, for those schools that do, it can pay dividends. On average, 56 per cent of pupils eat their school meals, well above the national average of 43 per cent. And this matters. As Ofsted noted in its July report on childhood obesity, our current school dinners are not only healthier for children, but also the economy.

“Average take-up of school dinners needs to be at least 50 per cent for the school food service to break even,” the report notes. “Subsidising low take-up costs local authorities or the schools themselves £140m a year. The government is therefore keen to encourage more parents to take advantage of school dinners.”

In search of inspiration, they might visit the National Archives. Or have lunch with some eight-year-olds in Hackney. “I just like that everyone sits down together and talks,” says one of my companions as we finish our oat-topped crumble and help stack our neighbours’ plates. “And blood oranges. I like them too.”

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