Children deserve a better food experience

| 23rd January 2020
The government needs to support schools to give children the school food experience they deserve.

My wish is that lunchtime is seen as a lesson and that enough time is given not just to eat the food, but to appreciate its value too.

The headteacher and I decided to opt out of our usual meals service 20 years ago. We thought the children of our small village school deserved a better food experience.

The idea was simple - we wanted to see if we could bring a whole school approach to school meals, with everything cooked from scratch on site, and everyone within the school and wider community having a role in the food and education the children received.

Today, this might not seem like a huge step, but at the time it was a revolutionary change that helped to re-shape school meals across the UK and led to the creation of Food For Life in 2003.

Tight budgets 

The ethos of Food for Life has always been that everyone has a voice that should be heard. It’s about serving the best food possible on very tight budgets, but it’s also about showing kids where their food comes from, how to grow, how to cook and how to make the school lunch a social occasion.

I have nothing but admiration for the school catering teams across the country. Unless you’ve worked in a school kitchen it is hard to understand the challenges they face.  

Caterers will routinely serve up to 2500 meals in the space of a school lunch hour, with absolutely no space to fall behind or delay service; when lunch is served at 12pm, it means 12, not ten past or ten to. Making a budget of 80-90p per pupil stretch to a two-course meal is nothing short of financial wizardry.

That’s why it’s devastating to see the lack of support given by the government as school meal providers struggle daily because of inadequate funding.

The annual State of the Nation report into children’s food in England includes the results of an 18-month investigation based on interviews with head teachers, school meal providers and caterers.  Interviews revealed that some caterers are knowingly not complying with the government’s School Food Standards, which ensure meals are nutritious, in order to make cost savings, with many trading down from British food to lower quality imported ingredients.

Value

One of my great frustrations is that school food is still seen as an add-on during the school day, not as a lesson in its own right.

Across the country, there are children who still don’t know how to sit at a table or use a knife and fork, let alone know where their food comes from or what vegetables are. 

My wish is that lunchtime is seen as a lesson and that enough time is given not just to eat the food, but to appreciate its value too.

Yet there is no cohesive strategy to address these issues across the UK. Cookery is taught in some schools but not all and many schools follow the food-based standards but not all of them do. 

Many schools have made food an integral part of the school experience, and the challenge is to build on the great work that is happening in these places and spread it across the country.

We need to value food and the catering service from the farmer to the food on our children’s plates.

Cohesion

We need a cohesive message across all schools. My wish is that lunchtime is seen as a lesson and that enough time is given not just to eat the food, but to appreciate its value too.

The school meals catering service has faced many challenges in the last 20 years and has risen to every one of those. I believe we can help change the nation’s eating habits and tackle the multiple diet-related issues we face, but school caterers can’t do it in isolation, it needs to go beyond the school kitchen, into the whole school and further afield – and it needs government support to do this.  

Many people ask me why anyone would become a school caterer. The answer is simple: because the children deserve the best you can do, and I know that if my life had taken a different course, I would still be in the school kitchen today.

This author

Jeanette Orrey MBE is a children's food campaigner and former school dinner lady who in 2012 received the MBE for her services to food in schools.

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