Unprecedented levels of attention have been lavished on how and what we should be feeding the nation's children, particularly in recent months. A swelling tide of obesity and the exposure of just how little is being spent on the nutritional needs of the next generation has led to everyone, from Jamie Oliver to the prime minister, having a say on school meals.
If you thought feeding the general masses of schoolchildren was a challenge, however, some caterers are dealing with diets of a far more complicated nature. Religion, special needs, health and the nature of the school itself can all play a part in a child's food and nutritional requirements. You're unlikely to find deep-fried chips and mushy peas in any of these schools.
The Yehudi Menuhin School of Music
The world-famous violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, founded this school in 1963. Its express purpose was to create the ideal environment in which musically gifted children could develop their talents. Some of the school's most recognisable alumni include violinists Nigel Kennedy and Tasmin Little, but each year only about 10 new string or piano pupils are accepted into this exclusive enclave of musical genius.
The boarding school in Stoke d'Abernon, Surrey, is currently home to 64 children from the ages of eight to 18 and represents some 22 nationalities. While it might not seem obvious to those uninitiated in the intensive regime these children undergo, their nutritional requirements are not dissimilar to those of athletes. On top of this Menuhin founded his school firmly on a holistic ethos, with the explicit emphasis on healthy eating playing a vital role in a student's development.
"Practising for three to four hours a day on a musical instrument means using the whole physique and requires a lot of strength and energy," says headmaster Nicolas Chisholm. "And music practice is on top of their normal schooling requirements."
It's a challenging job, seven days a week, but caterer The Brookwood Partnership has provided a culinary offering satisfying to the children, teachers and the company's own business needs. "The basis of our catering is a balanced diet with lots of variety and interest," says operations manager John Buffery. "It's also quite a sophisticated and cosmopolitan menu because we feed such a wide range of nationalities."
Providing a balanced and healthy diet, heavy on fresh fruit and vegetable content, and ensuring the children get this food in regular doses throughout the day provide the main focus of the catering operation. "The children burn up a lot of energy so we have to make sure their diet is rich in high-fibre carbohydrates and balanced with quality cuts of meat," says Buffery.
Chisholm is also keen to emphasise that children at the music school are much healthier since Brookwood took over. "We're feeding these children an enormous amount of food but none of them is overweight and there are few cases of acne here," he says.
As well as three substantial and varied daily meals, Brookwood supplies two snacks - for example English muffins and cheese or savoury croissants in the morning, and wraps and cakes in the afternoon.
It's a challenging contract but the caterers are helped by enthusiasm from the children themselves. "Sometimes the children are sent recipes from their parents abroad and want to get involved in the kitchen," says Buffery. "They're here seven days a week and some of them are fussy eaters, so we work with them on menu development to give them what they want."
Brookwood's fresh food policy means ingredients actually have a lower cost than they might do otherwise. But Buffery admits that menus are costed considerably higher than in normal state schools, with the average meal costing about 84p. By comparison, the Soil Association's Food for Life report, published last year, noted that ingredients for some primary school meals were costing as little as 31p (Caterer, 9 October 2003, page 16).
Higher overheads result from both the quality of ingredients, the need to cater for specialist diets, such as those for coeliacs, and the number of staff required to work over the seven-day period. The school's focus on healthy living also means Brookwood employs fully-trained chefs in the school kitchens. "Having trained chefs in the kitchen rather than cooks increases the labour structure but we want real foodies," says Buffery.
School meals have proved a sensitive subject for mainstream education, but for special needs children, proper nutrition is even more immediately vital to their health and welfare. SENAD is a group of 18 residential schools that teach and care for children with varying degrees of autism. At these schools, diet is considered central to both health and the development and education of the child.
"Diet plays a huge part in a child's development, whether they're autistic or not," says Fiona Hopkinson, co-owner of Hopkinson Catering, which runs SENAD's catering operation. "With special needs children, however, diet is even more prevalent because the wrong food can affect their behaviour quite dramatically. One chocolate bar or the wrong e-number can be the beginning of a major episode of [mood] swings and roundabouts."
Fresh food and the absence of all e-numbers, preservatives, additives, or even too much sugar forms the basis of menus at these schools. Processed food is almost entirely taboo, and the only frozen produce allowed are peas and sweet corn. "We do allow some branded products, such as Heinz baked beans and spaghetti, but only because you do have to give the children what they want as well," says Hopkinson.
While some children have very specialist diet needs, the emphasis at SENAD is on giving the children a balanced and healthy diet, providing a rounded nutritional intake. "The children have very normal lives and food is an important part of any environment, it's a social occasion," stresses Hopkinson. "All children need balanced diets but less able children need even more careful attention."
A more thoughtful approach to food presentation is also required. "The need for patience and flexibility is the biggest difference when catering for autistic children," says Hopkinson. "The children require more encouragement to try new things, so staff get to know them personally and talk them through what's on offer. Information should be broken down into bite-size, manageable pieces."
Reliability is another major factor for the catering team. "You can't tell autistic children it's shepherd's pie for lunch and then give them beef casserole," says Hopkinson. "Routine is important and food has to be on time and presented in a consistent manner."
For children with very strict dietary needs, flexibility is also essential. "Some children may need fat-reducing or increasing diets and we respond to this on an individual basis," says Hopkinson. "It took a while to get used to at first, but now it's just routine for the team. We still make sure all the children know in advance what to expect and that they all get the same variety and fresh seasonal products. No child can be seen to be singled out."
While catering for these dietary requirements, and the need for some specialist staff training may suggest high costs, Hopkinson stresses that the company's fresh food policy keeps prices low. "It's much more cost-effective," she says. "We haven't changed our budget for the last eight years."
JFS - Kosher "Kosher catering is actually not that difficult," says Roger McKenna of Cater Link, which has contracts at several London Jewish schools and at JFS in Kenton, Middlesex. "The key is a combination of fresh food and guidance from the client."
The number one noticeable difference from most other school kitchens is the absence of meat. At JFS, the school and Cater Link worked together to decide that, instead of running two kitchens - one for milk and one for meat as required by Jewish law - a vegetarian diet and only one kitchen would be both more efficient and cost-effective. "Fresh vegetables, fish and dairy products provide a very good range of food nutritionally, while kosher meat is expensive and can be difficult to source," says McKenna. To everyone's satisfaction, the old meat kitchen was transformed into a new library and learning resource.
The second main difference is the presence of a "shomer" in the kitchen. The shomer is appointed by the London Beth Din and establishes the rules of the kitchen, oversees preparation, and lights the ovens, as dictated by Jewish law. The shomer is trained on all food issues relating to Jewish law and makes sure the catering team and suppliers keep on track.
Only about 30% of food needs to come from specialist kosher suppliers and, in London, these are in plentiful supply. "All our bread comes from a kosher bakery, and certain other items, such as margarine, tuna, pasta and milk and dairy products, must be kosher but it's no problem," says McKenna. "The school goes to extraordinary lengths to help us in every way. Consistent communication and a good relationship are the foundations of the contract."
While the menu itself is based on fresh food (at least 80% of all main meals are fresh) with an emphasis on a balanced diet and plenty of variety, Cater Link also pays keen attention to Jewish cultural life.
Kosher requirements aside, attention to the Jewish festivals has proved a vital component of the contract's success. "At Hanukkah, we served all the various types of latkes [pancakes usually made with grated potato, eggs, onions, matzo meal and seasonings]," says McKenna. "It's just a matter of research and being sensitive to the different festivals and celebrations."
Fish and chips remains the favourite main meal, although haddock goujons give a more sophisticated twist, and chocolate pudding is consistently the chosen dessert of all cultures.
Despite kosher having the reputation of being an expensive diet, Cater Link has turned what was formerly a loss-making contract into modest profit. "Kosher does mean some higher costs, but economies of scale mitigate that," says McKenna.
The introduction of a cashless card system has also boosted profits and given parents more control over their children's diets. "The caterers before us walked away because they couldn't make the books balance," says McKenna. "Disciplined portion control and careful budgeting has also helped."
McKenna is sure that success rests on the close relationship between school and caterers. "The catering is a partnership with the school. We sit down every term with students, staff and the governing body so we can continually develop the product, get feedback and flag up any festivals. This is why it works," he says.
Sample Menu: Yehudi Menuhin School
The main event: Chargrilled salmon fillet with mango and coriander salsa
Meat-free zone: Stuffed aubergine topped with feta cheese
And to go with: Steamed mange-tout and dauphinoise potatoes
Scrummy puds: Gooey chocolate cake with chocolate sauce
Available daily: Fresh fruits and salad
Menu: Hopkinson Catering
Lunch: Lasagne, garlic bread and side salad
Vegetables: Courgettes and fine beans
Vegetarian: Mushroom pancakes
Salad: Tuna flakes
Hot sweet: Lemon sponge and custard
Cold sweet: Chocolate mousse
Tea: Home-made spring rolls, BBQ sauce and rice
Veggie tea: Home-made veggie spring rolls
Cake: Blueberry muffin