As we launch our #Give A Sausage campaign, Naomi Duncan, our Chief Executive, shares her thoughts on what needs to change in school food.
“I vividly remember the women who served our school lunches. I remember them being kind when we were small, overwhelmed eleven years olds, and holding their ground admirably when we became an ocean of mouthy, more confident, fifteen-year-olds. I remember most of all the woman whose job it was every day to tend to the chip fryer. I felt for her on the hottest days of the school year, emptying and refilling the basket of a lava hot fryer, when we could breeze outside with our chips, gravy and a chocolate cookie and escape into the fresh air.
School food has come on a significant journey since I was in school. There are many schools who offer excellent, quality food, made with love and care by an army of dedicated chefs, caterers and cooks. But there are too many schools where that same dedicated army, the people who helped keep the country’s children fed during the pandemic, are being handed menus, recipes and ingredients for bland, beige, bad for you food. In many secondary schools, kids can eat a bacon roll for breakfast, a panini at break and a slice of pizza at lunch, without ever coming face to face with a vegetable. So we can’t just pretend it’s all been fixed, that everything is OK now.
Nowadays there are school food standards – these should mean that chocolate is off the menu and that the deep fat fryer is only wheeled out once a week. But standards are routinely ignored or circumvented. It’s not unusual to find potato being served as the accompaniment to every meal, often bought in pre-made and pre-fried, to then be finished in an oven and claimed as ‘oven-baked’. This is with flagrant disregard to the legislation covering school food, not to mention the ethos of the School Food Plan, but no one is enforcing the rules. A 2019 study by the Food For Life team found that more than half of secondary schools are routinely breaching the regulations.
There are many passionate campaigners working to improve school food, but for many people in the country it just isn’t seen as a priority. Yet the food children eat in schools is important. It can be the only meal they eat in a day, it can provide much-needed nutrition and it can help to shape their eating habits for life. A decent school meal, and there are many of them, is hands down far more likely to meet a child’s nutritional needs than a packed lunch. But not every school meal is decent.
We see it every day, invited in by schools who want to do better for their pupils, and better by the teams who work in their kitchens. Schools who value their school chefs as important members of the school community, contributing to children’s learning. We’ve seen unhappy school cooks transformed into confident school chef educators, simply by investing in them, training them, paying them decent wages and putting quality of ingredients first. Every ‘Instagram ready’ photo we post of school food is a story of a whole team who’ve worked to make that plate of food possible.
We need to care about school food again. We need to call out unacceptable practices. We need the great school food we see in some schools, in every school in the country. We need to value the people who, when the country was in lockdown and people were staying at home for their safety, put on their uniforms and went into work to help keep the country running.
So to the school chefs and cooks of the country, I want to say this: We value you, we know how important you are, we know you ‘give a sausage’ about the children in your care – and we ‘give a sausage’ about you. We want all of you to be valued in your schools, empowered by your employers, and recognised by the country as playing the vital role that you do. When we point a finger at beige menus and processed packet mixes, we’re not pointing at you, we’re pointing at a system that allows these things to be the norm in too many schools.
We’re calling on the country, schools and the government to care about school food. To put quality first, to make sure every child accesses a good school meal and to make sure that our school chefs are invested in and valued. We know how important school food is. We want everyone else to realise that too.