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Public sector focus: Should pork be off the menu?

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Public sector focus: Should pork be off the menu?
Written by:

Pork has been removed from the menu at primary schools in Islington, but not everyone agrees with the council’s decision. Elly Earls meets Mike Duckett, who’s staunchly against the move, and Julian Fris, who supports it, to get both sides of the story

Pork has been removed from the menu at primary schools in Islington because ensuring Muslim and Jewish children were not eating it was deemed “an unnecessary cost at a time of tight budgets”. Other schools, like the City Academy, Hackney, already do the same. But are no-pork policies
fair to children who do want to eat the red meat and, further, could they damage British pork producers? Or is it simply an effective way to cut costs and one that, in reality, isn’t limiting pupils’ choices at all?

Mike Duckett MBE FIH (pictured, right below), the former head of catering at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London, is a staunch defender of the former position. “I believe it is totally unfair to those children in the borough that come from a white British background. They will miss the variety to the diet that pork and pork products can provide,” he believes.

“[In the case of Islington], there is appalling discrimination against the predominantly British white pupils and the school is pandering to approximately 10% of the school population [statistics show that Muslims represent 10% of Islington’s population].”

Duckett also thinks removing pork from the menu is removing a vital part of pupils’ food education, as well as essential nutrition.

“It is extremely important that the education of food covers all the differing ingredients available,” he says, adding that this is also something encouraged by Government.

“The Government encourages children to visit farms and understand what is grown and how it is made available. The Government also encourages the use of British-grown produce in school menus; indeed, this is part of the buying advice via the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Moreover, pork and pork products are a valuable part of the “eatwell plate”, which outlines what we need to eat for a healthy varied diet – absolutely essential for growing children.”

Many schools, he adds, offer options for Muslims as well as traditional British pork-based main courses, without issue. “[Schools that don’t offer pork] are definitely being lazy, as other schools are able to supply a varied menu including pork products,” he says. “Any professional caterer [should] be able to supply a varied menu choice within tight budgets.”

Julian Fris (pictured, left above), founder and director of facilities management and catering consultancy Neller Davies, however, is firmly on the other side of the fence. “Personally, I don’t think it’s unfair [to remove pork from menus] as long as you give pupils a reasonable choice,” he says. “Plus, British catering has moved on significantly with the impact of cultural change anyway; a lot of what people eat has been brought in from other countries. So I don’t think it’s discriminatory, I think it’s representative of an accepting, inclusive society.”

Besides, there’s a lot caterers can do with chicken, turkey, lamb and fish, Fris contends. At secondary school the City Academy in Hackney, for example, where neither pork nor beef are on the menu, he thinks pupils have more than enough options. “Pupils have two choices – a meat choice and  vegetarian choice – and the caterers have to work with chicken, lamb, fish and turkey,” he explains.

“So it’s down to the caterer to be innovative with the menu and it works very well.” Popular menu items include spicy lamb fajitas and jerk chicken drumsticks. Moreover, school meals make up only 18% of all meals eaten by children, if you calculate it based on eating one meal at school every
day for 40 weeks of the year. “They can eat pork to their heart’s content when they go home,” Fris says. “Plus, it’s not all about the main protein content; it’s about how it’s presented and served, and the nutritional content. Pork is classed as a red meat, which may be a higher risk than white meats, so some enforced moderation could be beneficial.”

Of course, removing pork from the menu at primary schools in Islington and at the City Academy, Hackney was driven largely by cost, rather than the meat’s nutritional value. It was considered too expensive to ensure pork was not served to pupils who do not eat it for religious reasons. “Monitoring each child, ensuring they are avoiding pork every day, is an unnecessary cost at a time of tight budgets,” said a representative at the council.

But is this a valid argument? For Duckett, it’s a firm “no”. “It is nonsense that the council is saying it is costly to monitor the service of meals as most schools have ‘school lunchtime supervisors’, known as lunchtime assistants, [who] are employed in all primary schools to ensure children are secure and safe,” he says.

“Obviously they have the added responsibility for meal service, meaning staffing is there anyway, so it is not an extra cost.”

Fris, though, believes it’s ore complex than that. “The issue may be less about staff costs, as typically teachers and assistants take it in turns to monitor, while the catering team cook and serve the food,” he says. “The issue is more about wastage and choice; [when] more choices have to be produced, the kitchen has to predict uptake for each choice and ideally ensure that all choices are available throughout lunch service. More choices can lead to higher wastage.”

Yet Duckett stresses pork is “the cheapest meat on the market”, something that also needs to be taken into account by councils. Fris, however, thinks this is a relatively easy issue to get round. “Where there are higher cost ingredients, caterers tend to have to balance this out in their planning or bulk out dishes,” he notes. “It’s a nifty way of introducing things the kids potentially wouldn’t eat if you didn’t put them in there, like vegetables. You can be more focused on what you’re putting out.”

Duckett is also keen to raise the point that, if pork was to be scrapped from school menus more widely across the country, the impact on some British pork producers could be enormous.

“Local butchers rely on supplying pork products to schools, and pig farmers around London are very worried,” he says.

In conclusion, Fris acknowledges that there’s really no easy answer to the problem. “If you’ve got all these different cultures, how many choices are you going to have on the menu to appease everyone? It becomes very difficult and, if you add in more choice, it increases the waste risk,” he explains.
“I think Islington is between a rock and a hard place, and all these councils and academies are having to tighten their belts. They’re just trying to maintain their service in quite a difficult financial environment. Nonetheless, it’s good to raise the issue, as often these decisions get made and nobody challenges them.”

For Duckett, it comes down to one key idea: children should have the right to choose. “Children deserve better consideration from those who compile school meals, and pandering to cultural needs prevents an enjoyment of food. “Food and food tastes have always been at the heart of the British tradition and this variation of food is a way of life that we must keep secure.”

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