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The Caterer

The children's crusader

18 October 2004
The children's crusader

As parents, or workers in the state education sector, it's easy for us to moan about under-funded schools and the disappearance of traditional cookery lessons. But how many of us actually do something about it?

Yinka Thomas is someone who has. The former sports journalist turned nutritional consultant had a bright idea while she was employed by Barnet schools in north London. She realised that plenty of primary school head teachers wanted to teach practical cookery but didn't have the equipment - or didn't have the budgets to install a kitchen for teaching purposes.

She put in a call to Hotpoint and was pleasantly surprised when the company immediately agreed to help by donating cookers and equipment. This year, Thomas founded Kids Kitchen, a non-profit organisation that installs kitchens and cooking equipment in primary schools, as well as providing training and healthy eating workshops.

So far, Kids Kitchen has equipped Sherwood Park School in Sidcup, Kent, and 14 Greater London schools are lined up to receive equipment this autumn.

Kids Kitchen is also supported by Kenwood, chef Antony Worall Thompson, the Nutrition Society, the Food Commission, and the Chartered Institute of Surveyors. It is seeking further support from equipment manufacturers.

Thomas explains why there is a need for assistance and investment: "Cooking is part of the national curriculum under Design and Technology, but most schools lack resources. If cooking is included, it usually amounts to something that can be cooked in the staff room microwave."

Food education is only compulsory as far as key stages one and two (ages five to 11), which covers bread-making, learning about fruit and vegetables, sandwiches and biscuits. But, as Thomas points out, without equipment you can't do any cooking.

So, how does Kids Kitchen work? Primary schools that sign up for the Healthy Eating award module run by their local authority Healthy Schools Scheme (or that have already completed the award) can apply for a kitchen or kitchen facilities.

Do the schools just get a free kitchen, then? "No. We offer support via our links with the Government-funded Food in Schools project that provides cookery teaching training for primary school teachers by secondary school Food Technology teachers. We also provide a folder of training guidelines for teachers, food hygiene, lesson plans and project ideas."

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors is providing a surveyor free of charge. The costs of labour, plumbing and electrics will need to be met by the school and/or local authority.

The folder of recipes and information encourages children to cook and prepare healthy meals and dishes that they wouldn't normally try.

Thomas is well aware that improving children's eating habits and knowledge of food is a mammoth task. That's why she's getting kids involved from an early age and focusing on primary schools. It is illegal to put any additives, flavourings, colourings, hydrogenated fat, or preservatives into baby food, she points out, and yet we are letting children choose what they want to eat at school from the age of four.

"They're protected up to the age of one, and then all hell breaks loose. You have four-year-olds choosing their main meal of the day. They always give them this bland pasta. Sometimes they choose pasta with chips, or pasta with pizza, so they're getting an overdose of refined carbohydrates."

Thomas believes this is totally wrong and will not accept the defence that caterers are giving children what they love. "You need to give them what's good for them! We're the adults! Four is the ideal age to develop your palette."

A recent Ofsted report found that nurseries were much better at promoting and including food and nutrition in every aspect of learning when compared with primary schools. It found the best schools and nurseries had a food policy that guided everything concerning food and nutrition: the curriculum, types of food and snacks eaten during the day, including packed lunches and rewards. The policy should also involve parents.

The Kids Kitchen folder shows healthier ways of preparing cakes, biscuits and pizzas by using alternatives to refined sugar, vegetable oils and margarine.

"Smoothie-makers are an important piece of equipment," Thomas says. "They are an excellent way of including the recommended five portions of fruits and vegetables into a milkshake-like drink."

In workshops and talks, Thomas finds kids are fascinated by food and its effect on the body. With older kids, pushing home the message that eating junk food ruins your looks and skin quality usually gets their attention.

Thomas is planning to make a video to take around schools that will feature sports stars she has had contact with from her days as a journalist with the BBC and Reuters. "This video will feature sports stars that children look up to who will tell children the truth - that to reach the top in sport, and any other field in life, you need to eat healthily."

For more information about Kids Kitchen contact: info@kidskitchen.org or call Yinka Thomas on 020 8922 7316

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