Initiatives to encourage healthy eating among children are spilling out of schools and into restaurants - and while most involve sourcing local food, some actually involve growing it. Janet Harmer reports
Sourcing local foods is an ongoing issue for all sectors of the catering industry. While quality and environmental factors are generally upheld as the main benefits of buying locally, sourcing from the surrounding area also has the added advantage of being able to connect children and young people to fresh food.
In the ongoing battle to get children to spurn processed, packaged foods - high in salt, sugar and saturated fats - in favour of freshly prepared foods from raw ingredients, any opportunity to introduce them to the source of the food has got to be a good thing. The easiest means of doing this is by involving them in the growing of fruit and vegetables or by taking them to visit a farm where crops are grown and animals destined for the plate are reared.
With schools reassessing their catering provision in order to comply with the Government's new nutritional standards, more and more of them are seeking to purchase ingredients locally. Not only does this often result in better-quality ingredients at a cheaper price, it also provides an opportunity for the whole school to get involved in finding out more about the origins of its food. At the same time, enterprising restaurants and hotels are working with children to extol the virtues of locally grown produce, as well as providing them with what is often their first introduction to the world of catering.
In schools, the Food for Life Partnership is currently highlighting the benefit of local foods when it comes to prioritising the nutritional needs of children. The intention is that all schools that apply for a Food for Life Catering Mark - there are currently 150 - will aim to purchase 50% of their food from the local area, as well as using 75% unprocessed and 30% organic foods.
"Local food provides the opportunity to reconnect pupils with the farms that produce the food and deepen their understanding of food's climate footprint," says Joanna Collins, policy and communications manager for Food for Life, which is a five-year Lottery-funded initiative set up by the Soil Association with the support of the Focus on Food Campaign, Garden Organic and the Health Education Trust.
With the partnership still in its early stages, the schools involved are discovering the many challenges that stem from sourcing local foods. Roseberry Sports & Community College, a secondary school with 725 pupils near Chester-le-Street, County Durham, is a flagship school on the programme. It is already purchasing organic milk from Acorn Dairy in Darlington and meat from R Manners & Sons in Ponteland, Newcastle, but is finding that it is taking time for other local suppliers to be approved.
Although the school runs its catering as an in-house operation, it still has to work with the local authority to ensure all suppliers are endorsed. "Traceability is extremely important to us," says the school's office manager, Lynn Hole. However, plans are already under way to develop an organic garden at the school, and the pupils have visited local allotments where they have been introduced to vegetables that they have never seen before.
Getting children involved in growing produce is definitely a positive step towards encouraging them to eat more healthily. A scheme run by the direct service organisation, Suffolk County Catering, to provide free seeds to schools has made a major difference in helping pupils understand and appreciate the health benefits and enjoyment of eating home-grown food.
Now in its fourth year of operation, the scheme involves some 190 out of a total of 320 primary, middle and high schools in Suffolk. Much of the produce grown is prepared and served at lunchtime.
"Since we've had the kitchen garden, the children are all eating big portions of vegetables," says Sarah Rees, head teacher at Great Barton Primary School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. "It has made a huge difference. The children are more willing to try different vegetables if they have grown them or seen them growing."
The selection of seeds planted this year includes radishes, peas, carrots, broad beans, mixed salad leaves and pumpkins, as well as seed potatoes with potato sacks.
One of the biggest success stories regarding the procurement of local foods for schools is found north of the border, where Onsite Services, East Ayrshire Council's in-house school meals operation, has become one of the most sustainable services in the UK.
The intention was originally to introduce an entirely organic school meals service, but when this proved impossible due to a limited supply of organic food, a mix of organic and locally sourced food was sought. Four years after the initiative was launched there are now 30 primary schools involved in the scheme, which has adapted the Food for Life programme as its framework and been financially supported by the Scottish Executive's Hungry for Success programme, aimed at improving the quality and uptake of school meals in the country.
Using local supplies has reduced the average distance travelled per menu item from 300 to 99 miles, with 60% of all vegetables used grown in Scotland and 12 out of 15 products sourced from within 40 miles. Careful menu planning and development has ensured that the use of local produce has added only 13p per two-course meal to ingredient costs.
The benefits to the children have been immense, with the uptake of meals in some schools rising by as much as 33% - an overall average increase of 4% in each school. "As a result, we now have children who enjoy couscous, roasted vegetables, salmon, mackerel, broccoli, red cabbage and chickpeas," says Margaret Paterson, catering manager at Hurlford Primary School, Hurlford, near Kilmarnock. "It is a far cry from the days of hot dogs, baked beans, cheese and chips."
As well as improving their eating habits, the increase in the children's knowledge and understanding of sustainably produced food has been significant, too. "They are now aware of the benefits that purchasing local foods have on reducing carbon emissions, boosting the local economy and protecting the environment," says Robin Gourlay, head of Onsite Services.
With children as a captive audience of the school meals service, it is relatively straightforward for teachers and school caterers to steer their focus towards the advantages of local foods. However, there are also a number of chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers who are banging the local food drum, as they passionately believe in the benefits of encouraging children to eat fresh, sustainable food.
Inspired by a scheme financed by the Bordeaux ministry of agriculture, which pays for every school child in their first year of senior school to enjoy a meal in one of the starred restaurants of the region, Wendy and Don Matheson invite local schoolchildren to grow vegetables and eat dinner at their eight-bedroom Boath House hotel near Nairn in the Scottish Highlands.
Once a fortnight, 24 children from Auldearn Primary School visit the hotel to plant and tend the vegetables in the two-and-a-half-acre walled kitchen garden. "It provides us with an opportunity to talk to them informally about local and organic ingredients and other major food issues," says Wendy.
Then, every November, the children in primary year seven (ages 10-11) are invited to dress up and visit the hotel to enjoy a three-course meal, incorporating some of the vegetables grown in the kitchen garden, cooked by head chef Charlie Lockley. The most recent dinner included carrot soup with coriander oil braised blade of Aberdeen Angus with creamed potatoes and parsley root and vanilla rice pudding with sweetened beetroot yogurt and orange sorbet.
Closed to the public
"There is no commercial benefit in what we do, and there are hoops we have to go through in order to organise the gardening and dinner," says Don, highlighting the fact that the restaurant and hotel has to be closed to the public on the night of the dinner, and child protection assessments have to be carried out.
"Having run the Slow Food convivium for the Highlands & Islands for several years, I have a bee in my bonnet about children not knowing where food comes from. Hopefully, our small efforts provide the children with some insight into local food, as well as break down some of the barriers to fine dining," he adds.
Matheson would love to see a scheme set up throughout Scotland that would involve schoolchildren in growing projects as well as eating the results of their labours, but he appreciates that such an initiative would require a significant amount of funding and organisation.
While most relationships between schools and restaurants or hotels are organised on an individual basis, the North Yorkshire Business and Education Partnership has helped to forge links between the two groups. And the key message that chefs in North Yorkshire wish to impart to schools is about the benefits that stem from reducing food miles, supporting local businesses and not wasting food.
As well the message being delivered at demonstrations on school visits, it is also the focus of the annual York Food Festival, held every September. Last year more than 1,000 schoolchildren were invited to take part in a series of hands-on workshops at the Guildhall in York, led by festival director and chef-proprietor of Melton's restaurant in York, Michael Hjort.
Down in the South-west, the emphasis at Fifteen, the beach-side restaurant set up between Padstow and Newquay by the Cornwall Foundation inspired by Jamie Oliver, is to make food fun for children. During the quieter months between September and April, visits to the restaurant by 30 local primary school children are organised twice a month. As well as holding pasta demonstrations, the children are encouraged to handle and taste local produce. With 80% of the restaurant's ingredients coming from within Cornwall, there is plenty of choice.
Fifteen's commitment to local food - such as "Cornish old" sausages, St Enodoc asparagus and Trenance Softee cheese - has been highlighted by its recent success at the Taste of England Awards when it won a gold award for its food sourcing and environmental policies, as well as its excellence of service and customer care.
The restaurant's daily changing menu makes its policy of buying locally straightforward. "We don't place orders with our suppliers as most other restaurants do," says executive chef Neil Haydock. "We talk to suppliers at the beginning of the year and discuss growing programmes for the coming seasons, and then they turn up with a box of veg or whatever and we build the menu around that."
Getting across to children some of the passion that Haydock and his colleagues have for local produce is an enormously valuable exercise. While it might not be part of the general remit of being a chef or caterer, the direct benefit for the health of future generations, as well as the knock-on boost to business that such initiatives inevitably bring, could be immense.
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The benefits of buying local food
• More nutritious and better-quality food. It is easier to monitor quality and freshness of supplies by buying direct from farmers and producers. Fewer vitamins are lost the less time food is in transit and the quicker it reaches the plate. Chefs can see how animals are reared, produce is grown and items like cheese are made if they are produced near by.
• Increases a sense of seasonality. If a chef buys ingredients that are grown locally, then it is going to be seasonal and, therefore, bought when the items are at their cheapest and in peak condition.
• Good traceability. It is easier to monitor production and welfare standards with food that is produced just down the road. It's more difficult to carry out checks with farmers and suppliers across the other side of the world.
• It's cheaper. The shorter the distance food travels, the lower the costs in aviation fuel and diesel.
• Less harm to the environment. Transporting food long distances uses enormous quantities of fuel, which adds to pollution and global warming. Purchasing local foods is generally more sustainable than buying from Third World countries where rainforests are being felled to plant crops.
• Economically friendly. Supporting the local economy is advantageous to all parties.
• Interesting, tasty products. Locally produced foods are more likely to be made by artisans who put a greater emphasis on producing food with flavour than large manufacturers, who are generally driven by profit.
• Great marketing opportunity. Chefs and caterers can promote local sourcing on their menus. Items like Goosenargh duck, Ryedale lamb, Cromer crab and Tunworth cheese are enticing to customers.