Our charity began in 2007 with a campaign to fix up the school meals in 40 London primary schools. At the time, only 26% of the children were choosing school meals – which was unsurprising, since they were being served frozen meals brought in from a factory in Wales. The LA believed that the schools included in the contract couldn’t cook from fresh. We challenged them on that, and proceeded to write an ambitious food spec, asking caterers to come back to us with solutions.
By 2011, we had managed to transform the service, getting those 40 primary schools to start serving freshly prepared meals, cooked on-site by well-trained school cooks, using quality ingredients. Within a term of the new provision being introduced, the pupils’ take-up of school meals had doubled and the meal price had came down by as much as 38p.
We know that food prices have increased in the time since, but we’d still recommend that schools be ambitious, ask for the meal service they want and write an ambitious spec. We also know that schools will get better meal prices if they collaborate with each other – single site contracts are likely to be more expensive, as you won’t enjoy the benefits of economies of scale.
When working on the government’s School Food Plan in 2013, the three things schools with great meal services had in common were:
• A headteacher that led the change by taking responsibility for the service’s success and made things happen
• A whole school approach that encouraged a good food culture throughout the school, so that teachers, children, parents and the wider community all received messages about food rooted in health and wellbeing
• A true understanding of their customers – i.e. the children.
Mindful of these, it’s sensible to create a food team that includes someone from SLT, a rep from the catering company, whoever manages the contract and, of course, some children. Together, you can go on your reconnaissance mission, discuss the findings and come up with a ‘to do’ list.
Grow your own
How about growing the food for your school lunches yourself? There are some great examples of schools growing masses of vegetables to supplement their school kitchen supplies, but to be honest, they’re rare.
What school gardens can do, however, is create a fabulous learning experience for children so that they can get to grips with where food comes from. What better way is there to teach children about food then getting them to grow it from seed and harvest the fresh produce, before taking it to the school kitchen? We’ve found that school cooks are happy to receive garden offerings, and that caterers can do a great job of showcasing the children’s efforts: ‘Today’s tomatoes were brought to you by Year 5 – today’s roast potatoes were grown by Year 2…’
The food enterprise element in our programmes has proved very popular with both teachers – it’s a great opportunity for sneaking in a bit of maths – and children, the latter of whom love the idea of becoming traders and will often thrive in a simulated market environment, when previously they might have been reluctant to contribute in class.
We’ve also seen young people successfully selling chutney and sauces through our Schools to Market programme with Whole Foods Market, and fresh veg with our Young Marketeers at Borough Market
Stephanie Wood is the founder and CEO of the charity School Food Matters