In week two of our Healthy Eating Month we focus on feeding the young. Janet Harmer kicks off by investigating how some schools are meeting the new Government guidelines and encouraging children to eat lunch
With school canteens up and down the country now offering good-quality healthy dishes, the key challenge facing caterers is how to encourage children to eat the food.
The Government's emphasis over the past 2-3 years has been to ensure that every school has taken on board the nutritional standards that will become statutory in primary schools in September and in secondary schools next year. It is believed most schools are now well on the way to achieving the standards, having replaced processed foods with freshly prepared dishes, taken on the advice of dietitians or invested in nutritional software, and put more money into training staff.
However, the introduction of such radical changes has seen the take-up of school meals plummet in some areas. To arrest further falls and grow the service again - to ensure it remains sustainable for the future - the School Food Trust (SFT) has launched its Million Meals campaign, which aims to increase the number of children eating school meals each day by one million up to 4.2 million by 2010. More than 1,900 schools have already signed up.
If achieved, it will see every school in the country increase its uptake of meals by an average of 4% to more than 50%. The SFT's most recent figures show that the current uptake is 41% in primary schools and 38% in secondary schools.
While it is widely recognised that a healthy, balanced diet will encourage pupils to apply themselves in order that they achieve their educational potential and become healthy adults, there is still a battle in some areas to get young people to sign up to this philosophy.
The cultural shift required for the number to improve is huge. As well as many youngsters having been brought up in schools that once happily served them a diet of crisps, hamburgers, chips and sugary drinks, they may also be influenced by the fact that ready-meals are often a staple of their diets at home and they live in a society that's used to grazing on the hoof.
It is heartening, though, to discover that there are many examples of initiatives having a positive impact on the take-up of meals in schools up and down the country.
Cumbria County Council
162 primary schools, with pupils aged 4-11
By delivering four different styles of food service Cumbria County Council has successfully increased its uptake of meals in the primary school sector by nearly 7%. In 2004, when the county undertook a major review of its school food provision, 46% of pupils up to the age of 11 purchased a midday meal. However, in the financial year ending in March the figure averaged at 52.8%, with a peak of 60% during December 2007.
"The idea has been to provide a different style of food service to individual schools, depending on their size, kitchen facilities and budgets," says the council's head of premises, Sue Castle-Clarke.
While the content of school meals in Cumbria has for some time been centred on freshly prepared menus, predominantly prepared from local ingredients, the recent changes have provided an increased focus on customer service, she adds.
Today, Cumbria's school food service provides food to 55% of the primary schools throughout the county, amounting to 10,500 meals served daily throughout 162 schools, all of which have dedicated budgets for school meals. The four different styles of service are:
• Multi-choice menu A choice of several main-course dishes, including a vegetarian option, alongside vegetables, filled jacket potatoes and salads freshly prepared in schools where funding is plentiful.
• Simplified menu One main-course dish, alongside a vegetarian option, vegetables, filled jacket potatoes and salads freshly prepared in schools where funding is more limited.
• OvenFresh dishes Frozen ready-meals from Apetito are served alongside fresh vegetables, salads and fresh fruit in 22 schools without fully functional kitchens where lunches were previously prepared in nearby schools. This has resulted in increased employment opportunities in schools where there were previously no catering staff.
• Low-cost option In small schools, where there might be only 30-40 pupils and space is limited, a short menu of items such as pizza and spaghetti bolognese is served.
Eleanor Palmer Primary School, Camden, North London
236 pupils, aged 3-11
By sitting down and eating with the children every day at the Eleanor Palmer Primary School in Camden, north London, the teachers have helped increase the take-up of school meals from 38% to 72%.
The staff's participation in lunches has occurred since catering company Cater Link took over the Camden school meals contract two years ago, leading to an overhaul of the service with freshly prepared food replacing a menu previously dominated by processed foods. Lunches cost £1.80 per day.
"It has made a heck of a difference," says head teacher Kate Frood, who subsidises the teachers' lunch by 50%. "There is always something the teachers want to eat. Even if one of them is on a diet, there are plenty of nice salads to choose from.
"As well as encouraging the children to eat their food, it is also a wonderful time to carry out informal conversations with the children and show an interest in their lives."
The parents have been brought on board, too. "We have a lot of critical middle-class parents, and when we invited them to taste some sample dishes they were bowled over by the quality - which has also helped boost our take-up figures," says Frood.
Peer pressure has been another positive factor, with pupils eating packed lunches being encouraged to sit with those having school meals, whereas, before, they were segregated. As a result, many of the packed-lunch pupils have been encouraged to swap to school lunches.
Liverpool City Council
194 schools, made up of 134 primary, 31 secondary and 18 special schools
In an effort to tackle one of the highest levels of child obesity in the UK, Liverpool City Council and Liverpool Primary Care Trust have joined forces to give a £2m boost towards promoting healthy eating in the city's schools.
The money is intended to put in place measures that will encourage more children to eat a nutritious school lunch and reduce the level of obesity among 11-year-olds by 10% by 2009. Statistics released in 2007 show that 20.7% of boys and 14.8% of girls aged 10-11 in Liverpool are obese.
Key elements of the initiative include:
• £10,000 for every secondary school to spend on improving school food and dining rooms.
• Visits to every school by a team of food advisers, including dietitians, to check the nutritional value of food on offer and hold taste tests to encourage pupils to try new dishes.
• More water coolers to be installed in every secondary school to encourage children not to drink fizzy or sweetened drinks.
• Fruit vending machines to be offered to every secondary school to encourage pupils to achieve their five portions a day of fruit and vegetables.
• Salad bars to be introduced to all primary schools.
• A cashless payment system for secondary schools to be introduced to encourage children entitled to free school meals and from low-income families to eat school lunches.
• Launch of a Healthy Schools Bus, which will visit schools to educate pupils about the importance of healthy eating in a fun and accessible way.
While Liverpool has not monitored the overall uptake of school meals in the past, it intends to do so in future in order to assess the success of the new campaign. However, it does know that while 50% of pupils in Liverpool are entitled to free school meals, the take-up of them varies between 37% and 100% in different schools.
Every school in Liverpool will benefit from the £2m payout, regardless of who provides the meals. Currently, school meals in the city are catered for by several different providers: 40% by Liverpool's own direct service organisation 48% by seven contract catering companies, including Scolarest, Duchy Catering and Food For Thought and 12% by in-house operators.
Greenback Primary School, which has 440 pupils aged 3-11, runs its own catering service and welcomes the new initiative, which will further enhance the steps it has already taken to improve its school meals. "We have already managed to increase our uptake by providing a better-quality service since opting out three years ago," says teacher and learning support manager Molly Gresswell. "Running the catering ourselves has given us the freedom to experiment with different dishes and offer healthy foods that we know the children will like."
Particular favourites of the children at Greenback Primary are home-made soups such as lentil, tomato and mixed vegetable, and oven-baked pollack with potato wedges.
Sprowston Community High School & Arts College
1,750 pupils, aged 11-18
The pupils' involvement in the selection process for a new contract caterer has helped increase meal uptake at Sprowston Community High School & Arts College, winning the school £5,000 in the School Food Trust's first School of the Month competition.
Price and quality were the most important considerations for the student panel when interviewing five potential contractors. Norwich-based company Edwards & Blake was selected as the new caterer and took over the contract in January. Through its introduction of a more adventurous, higher-quality and wider-ranging menu, the uptake of meals at Sprowston has increased from 33% to 53%.
"The students are the key customers, so we believed it was important they should be involved in the tender process," says deputy head teacher Des Reynolds. "Once they had made their choice they then introduced the new caterers to the other students in assembly. The students' ownership of this issue has been a key factor in improving our take-up numbers."
The £5,000 prize money is to be spent on purchasing new seating for the school canteen.
Wallace Fields Infant School, Epsom, Surrey
180 pupils, aged 4-7
Knowing that the school cook produced an excellent range of healthy and tasty dishes full of all the essential nutrients, Nicky Mann, the head teacher at Wallace Fields Infant School in Epsom, Surrey, had no apprehension three years ago in banning children from bringing in packed lunches. However, following a challenge from a parent, it quickly became apparent that she was not within her rights to implement such a ban.
Now Mann's approach has changed to one of expectation. "I tell the parents of every prospective pupil at the school that I expect their child to eat a school lunch," she says. "And the reason I say that is because the food is so good and I know it will help every child with their learning." The result is that more than 90% of the pupils at Wallace Fields eat a school meal every day, and they enjoy the experience - the limited amount of food waste is clear evidence of this. "We have a 30cm bucket for food waste and we never fill it. If we did, then we would quickly re-evaluate what we were doing."
As well as offering good food, much of the success of the lunch service is down to the environment and the way in which it is served. Tablecloths are used to cover each table, seating eight pupils of mixed ages. Large dishes of food are placed on every table, and a year-two pupil, aged 6-7, serves the other children family-style.
"This removes the behavioural problems that can occur with children queuing up," says Mann. "Although it is a bit of a squeeze in our school hall, everyone sits down to eat together, as having different sittings at this age can be divisive. They sit down for long enough to eat the food, but not so long that they get fidgety."
Mann does not employ separate lunchtime supervisors, as their role is undertaken by the teaching assistants (TAs). "This has been enormously successful, as the TAs know the children well," says Mann. "They provide a lot of encouragement and praise to the children, and even the fussy eaters eat most of their food." Surrey Commercial Services provides the catering, and favourite dishes among the children, who each pay £1.70 per day, are tuna pasta bake and a traditional roast.
Mann herself supervises lunch at least twice a week. "Many head teachers say they don't have time to get involved with lunches, but I really regard it as a most important part of the day, and if the children have a good lunch, I know they will be focused for the afternoon," she concludes.