Jackie Schneider: local authorities must protect children, not catering firms

Jackie image
Vocal school food campaigner Jackie Schneider on parent power, the importance of cooking from scratch and why free school meals would be the most cost-effective solution

Laura Sevier: Jamie Oliver's School Dinners campaign to ban junk food in schools and get children eating 'fresh, tasty, nutritious' food instead brought the issue into the public eye in 2005. Have school meals improved since he first alerted the nation to turkey twizzlers?

Jackie Schneider: The Jamie Oliver campaign took off the worst items from the menu. But it wouldn't have led to an improvement in the food per se.

roast chicken lunch

What happened in Merton as a result of our campaign - and it was very lively and a result of hundreds of parents - is that the council invested in a brand new kitchen in every single school that could cook from scratch, rather than just reheat things.

Kids used to just think school meals were shapeless things covered in breadcrumbs that had been deep fried. They had no idea if it was chicken or pork.

It's unrecognisable now. I had dinner yesterday in the school canteen where I teach and it was a roast chicken dinner with real chicken (as opposed to re-constituted chicken shapes) and we had chocolate and beetroot brownie which they'd cooked in the oven. If you go to any Merton school and look around there's salad and fruit every day and much more emphasis on freshly cooked food. This model we did in Merton could work anywhere else.

LS: How did you get involved with school food campaigning?

JS: It was as a teacher at a school at Gorringe Park school in Merton that I first became interested, in early 2005. When I tried to say 'look, we need to change our school meals,' I was completely ignored. I went to the governors' meeting to raise it and I wrote to the authorities.

I was told that it was none of my business, that a set company does the food and has nothing to do with the school. I thought this was outrageous and started to read around. There was starting to be some discussion - there were people like the Soil Association talking about it and the Fork to Farm programme had just come out.

What I did wrong, classically, was that I tried to describe it without showing people pictures. I think if I had shown pictures at that stage they would have been much more horrified.

LS: How did you manage to garner so much support from Merton parents and schools?

JS: I wrote to every head teacher in the Borough saying, 'I am a teacher but I want to act as a parent. Let's have a go as parents to help schools improve the food.'

I sent them some fliers saying 'Come to a meeting'. 150 people turned up. There are 40 odd schools in the Borough [of Merton] and we had parents from 38 schools. From that very meeting we started creating our committee.

The authority was horrified. On our original leaflet we said: 'How can we work with the authority?'. But it came back fighting and said there was nothing wrong with school food. So our position was: 'Okay, we will collect so much evidence you will have absolutely no position but to work with us.'

schoo dinner - beforeThat's where taking pictures and putting them up on our website became immensely powerful. Most people couldn't believe how awful they were. The press, particularly The Daily Mirror picked up on it and put pictures up.

LS: Did the head teachers support what you were doing?

JS: Yes, but they felt that they couldn't speak out. They were in a contractual arrangement with the caterers - private companies whose contract is negotiated by the authority. There were instances of people feeling quiet badly bullied when they had tried to complain.

What was happening was that people were complaining about things, getting through to the authority and instead of saying, ‘okay, we'll investigate', the authority behaved as if they were the supplier. I had some dinner ladies who complained directly to the caterers one day and the local authority then wrote back to the head saying, 'these people should be disciplined. How dare they upset the caterers?'

Our position was that the authority should be protecting our children rather than the contractor who is perfectly able to stand up for itself.

LS: What was the most shocking thing that you saw in a school canteen?

JS: People paying for dinner, food running out and seeing a dinner lady say to staff, 'has anyone got an apple or a piece of bread?'. Then the kids would just being given some mashed potato. Children would come into class and say, 'I didn't have any lunch'.

School dinner- beforeThe other really shocking thing was to go into a dining room, day after day, to see no vegetables. Sometimes they used to chop up apples at about 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning that went completely brown and horrible, and put them in a bowl of water which the children quite rightly rejected. Then they'd go:  ‘See? Children don't like fruit.'

Meals had completely moved away from cooking - the contractor really was a kind of middle man. It was about buying breaded shaped food stuff, very poor quality. They just needed to be heated up.

I spoke to the authority about it and I honestly think it believed that parents couldn't get children to eat fruit and vegetables so why should schools? Wouldn't schools be better off just giving kids stuff that they'd want to eat? Of course the quality went down, down, down and noboby ever seemed to complain.

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LS: Are the national nutritional standards for school food having an impact?

JS: There are nutritional standards and they were very unpopular with caterers but frankly, as a parent, given we were so badly let down and the nutritional value of the food was unbelievably poor, I think nutritional standards are the very least the industry needs to do reassure parents that - at the very least - the food will at least meet those standards.

You still need people who know about cooking - who care about taste - standards do not get us over that.

LS: Are packed lunches any better? Research published in January this year showed that children who eat packed lunches are still eating junk food.

JS: When we first approached the authorities in Merton about school dinners they said, 'well, look at the packed lunches'. Well, I think [they] should get [their] house in order first. Once you provide good quality food, fine - then you can start criticising other people.

Research has shown that packed lunches in this country don't contain much fruit and veg and we know kids need to eat more. If a school had tip-top school meals then I think they have every right to work with parents on packed lunches.

LS: Are free school dinners the way forward?

JS: It's very controversial. I'm not speaking on behalf of the School Food Trust but my personal feeling is that by giving free school meals it's actually very cost-effective.

It's a bit like giving child benefit. It's very cheap to administer, it normalises it and it means that those heads that don't have to deal with the issue suddenly have to because the teacher round the corner is.

It forces people to think: how do we get all the children in and out, and how can we ensure the food is hot and fresh?

If you know that you can train catering staff and you can have meaningful relationships with suppliers it's much easier when you've got the economy of scale and numbers. I know there will be a cost implication. But we don't say that for hospitals.

Also, given that we know that children don't eat enough fruit and veg on a daily basis it would be the simplest way. The Child Poverty Action Group are running a campaign for it this election.

LS: How important is real food education - farm visits and cookery lessons etc?

Huge. That's the single biggest thing schools could do. There are some amazing projects going on. The School Food Matters website has more details on this.

It's about getting children to understand that food is not a commodity, understanding how it's produced, the choices we have. We need education that shows children how to cook and that looks at Fairtrade.

There is space for schools to do that. Schools that do that have a much better chance of getting kids to really eat a good, healthy lunch. But obviously they get beaten up by targets and these things may not be high up on the agenda.

School involvement with a working farm means they can talk about all sorts of issues. I think real food education could quite quickly turn around cultural attitudes in this country.

Jackie Schneider set up Merton Parents for Better Food in Schools in 2005 and led a lively campaign involving over 150 parents in response to ‘terrible school meals across the borough'. She is a Food for Life advisor, on the board of the School Food Trust and is a co-ordinator for Sustain's The Children's Food Campaign - as well as teaching one day a week. You can follow her school food campaigns on her blog.

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

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