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Improving diet needs leadership

05 July 2004
Improving diet needs leadership

If we are ever going to improve the diets of children in the UK, we will need trailblazers who are prepared to challenge the way we currently provide school meals. People like Mark Lloyd, headmaster at east London's Barking Abbey School.

After taking up his post in 2001, Lloyd grew concerned that the crisps, doughnuts and fizzy drinks sold in his canteen sat uneasily with his school's status as a specialist sports college. Lloyd quickly pulled all fizzy drinks from the school's vending machines, happy that any lost revenue could be offset against an improvement in pupils' drinking habits.

With the service offered by Barking & Dagenham Council drawing complaints from all sides, Lloyd concluded that he could do better by going it alone and arranging his school's own catering. Opting out of centralised school meals provision is no walk in the park. For head teachers who take the service in house, there are negotiations, insurance, health and safety, staffing and line management issues to inherit. Lloyd was prepared to shoulder these burdens, if doing so resulted in a better meals service for his young charges.

Fortunately for Lloyd, he had by now been joined at Barking Abbey by Ruth Watts, a Barking & Dagenham school cook of 15 years' standing, and another catalyst for change. Frustrated with the council's reluctance to source an organic fruit and vegetable supplier, she had taken matters into her own hands and forged a deal with Essex organic farm Ashlyns that had managed to undercut the school's previous supplier.

Innovation will be the key to Barking Abbey's success. By using school premises and kitchen to host weddings, tea dances and other community events at weekends and in the evenings, the school should generate extra revenue that boosts the budget it has for feeding pupils. Other initiatives - educational visits to Ashlyns Farm, china plates and tablecloths on every table - aim to raise pupils' awareness of how to eat healthily and to improve their dining experience.

And children have been voting with their feet. Uptake of meals has risen by 25% in the past two years, and even the notoriously choosy sixth-form has begun to drift back in.

The Barking Abbey success story has been borne of a lot of hard work and initiative. Yet it is a story that any other school in the country could replicate, if only it applied itself wholeheartedly to providing the best meals - and if only it boasted champions, like Mark Lloyd and Ruth Watts, prepared to do more than pay lip service to improving kids' diets.

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