Is school nutrition going down the plughole?

August 30, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Posted in Daily Life | 2 Comments
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School nutrition has been high up in the public consciousness for a few years now, not least because celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has made it his personal crusade to improve the standard of food in schools. His damning discovery that schools in Greenwich and nationwide were serving ‘turkey twizzlers’ – a processed product that contains 21.2%  fat when cooked, more than twice the recommended guideline – drew nationwide attention to the poor quality of food being served to children every day.

The dreaded ‘turkey twizzlers’ contain no fewer than 40 ingredients, including just 24% turkey plus water, pork fat, rusk, wheat starch, three different sweeteners, hydrogenated vegetable oil, colourings and flavourings. Following Jamie Oliver’s campaign, two of the big three school catering companies, Scolarest and Sodexho, dropped twizzlers from their menus, showing that high-profile campaigns can bring about positive change.

An article in the Observer at the time, however, addressed the issue that even if children are given healthy options, they may not choose them. Brian Rossiter, Head Teacher at Valley Comprehensive in Nottingham, said: “We offer salads and healthy options but still find that over half our students choose the chips and burgers every day… we can’t play the role of parents and force them to eat meat and two veg because they will simply bring in cans of pop and crisps, and eat that instead. It’s terribly difficult.”

The debate has reopened recently with the news that Martha Payne, a nine-year-old girl from Argyll, had been running a blog called Never Seconds, documenting the content of her school dinners through photos every day. The blog became an internet sensation, but was then banned by the local council after an article in Scottish newspaper The Daily Record published a picture of Martha alongside celebrity chef Nick Nairn under a headline “Time to fire the dinner ladies”.

According to the Argyll and Bute Council, school caterers feared for their jobs after their work was shown to be below par. However, in a victory for Martha and a strike against censorship, the ban was soon overturned after a public outcry over its enforcement.

An interesting discovery that came out of Martha’s blog was the response she received from fans worldwide: pupils replied with pictures of their own school dinners, showing images of falafel in Israel, pumpkin cheesecake in Canada, sushi in Japan and tacos and hummus in the US. This only served to illustrate that good school food does exist, and therefore can exist for our children here in the UK.

Aside from Martha’s plight, the school nutrition debate has also been reignited by the news that the coalition government is considering cutting supplies of free milk to nurseries. At the moment, 1.5 million children under the age of five receive free milk under the scheme, which was introduced in the 1940s.

However, with some childcare providers claiming back 92p per pint provided – despite the fact that non-organic milk costs just 30p per pint in the supermarket – the government has proposed scaling back the scheme in a money-saving initiative. This proposition is likely to be unpopular with parents, however, who also have plenty of costs to contend with, whether paying for schoolwear or extra-curricular trips, and rely on nurseries to provide a nutritionally sound diet for their little ones during the day.

So, whilst it seems that effort has been made in recent years to improve the quality of school food, funding continues to be a big challenge. The money spent on school food needs to be spent well, providing children with healthy but substantial choices, and doing away with junk. And, as Martha Payne’s blog proves, we still have some way to go.

What do you think?

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  1. You are spot on when you say that you can’t force kids to eat healthy. You need to do what my company Cucina has done (average of 3-fold uptakes of school dinners in 40 UK school restaurants) – you get them to eat stealthy. Give them the food they find delicious, but make it healthy too!

    Get in touch if you’d like to find out more. Or watch me on Channel 4 on Monday – on the Dispatches programme.

    • Thanks for the comment Steve, will tune in with interest about stealthy school dinners!!!

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