Nearly 65 per cent of UK schools don’t know the origins of the food they serve. Education Correspondent Kat Keogh visits a primary where the journey from field to plate is less than a five-minute walk
For many adults, memories of school dinners evoke an Oliver Twist-style nightmare of slop, greasy chips and colourless boiled vegetables.
Fast forward a few decades and the attitude in schools is changing for the better, with fried foods and nondescript veg passed up in favour of fresh, British produce.
Research by the Countryside Alliance has revealed Birmingham Local Authority spent nearly 70 per cent of its £10.6 million food procurement budget on British food during 2009/10. The study shows British spending was up four per cent from 2008/9, and puts the authority above the national average authority spend of 62 per cent.
One city school which has been leading the way with locally-sourced food is the Oval Primary School in Yardley, which dishes up meals using produce grown on the school’s allotment. Three years ago, the 500-pupil school joined the Food for Life Partnership, a nationwide scheme funded by the National Lottery which gives communities access to seasonal, local and organic food, and to the skills they need to cook and grow fresh food. The partnership between the Oval and Food for Life has been so fruitful that head teacher Rachel Chahal became the only head teacher invited to Clarence House for a discussion with organic food champion Prince Charles.
“Food has such a huge impact on the children,” said Mrs Chahal “Learning about what they eat – or should eat – is just so important for the physical, personal and intellectual development. Children at the Oval understand where food comes from, not because they’ve read about it, but because they’ve actually seen it first hand.”
Food is grown all year round the school’s plots on a Birmingham City Council-run allotment just minutes from the school.
Staff, pupils and parents all dig in to help, and menus are planned around seasonal produce including cabbages, potatoes, courgettes, pumpkins and salad vegetables.
The allotment may not look as colourful in the winter but the food is used all year round in the kitchens and in lessons run by the Oval’s full-time cookery teacher.
“We try to time it so we have something to cook with all year round,” she said.
“For our harvest festival, we emptied all the beds and made soup, tarts and pies to sell.”
Around 300 children are fed hot meals every lunchtime, with the spoils of the allotment – where the children have a say in what is grown – going into dishes including vegetable moussaka and shepherd’s pie.
The kitchen also prepares a salad bar, homemade bread and uses organic, locally-sourced meat and milk where available. And all menus are passed through a computer programme, which checks meals have the right nutritional balance.
“It’s a hard working kitchen, but it is worth it,” said Elaine Salter, acting catering supervisor who started at the school in September. “I came from a community day nursery where I cooked for 40, now I have 300 children in an hour. I do a lot of home cooking myself, so it’s the same, just a much bigger pot.
“The children love the food – the rate we get through fruit salad is unbelievable.”
Having organic, locally-sourced food means meals at the Oval are more expensive, but governors made the decisons not to pass the additional cost on to parents.
Mrs Chahal added: “You can’t criticise people for wanting to get good value for money, which may mean going further for food, but we are making a different decision to go for quality, which obviously costs a little bit more, but it costs families the same. A long time ago we had the standard school dinner. I remember the days of the Turkey Twizzler dripping with grease, and it’s been something I’ve been trying to change ever since.”
The take-up of pupils taking school dinners has increased by nearly 10 per cent since joining the Partnership, and it’s not just the taste of school dinners that has improved.
Mrs Chahal said: “Behaviour at lunchtime has improved, as well as behaviour overall.
“Our standards have gone up too – last year, Year 6 left with the highest standards of reading the school has ever had.”