Lesley Finlay explores the relationship between education and nutrition...
It is hard to believe some of the surveys about children, their eating habits and their knowledge of food. One wonders whether they liven up quiet news days or are simply to infuriate those adults who grew up before main meals were removed from plastic tubs. The latest survey of children in the South West reveals that one in four children do not know that burgers come from cattle (eventually!), and some think that bacon comes from horses.
You will be heartened to hear that a great deal of work is going on in schools in both the public and private sector to educate children about healthy eating and where food comes from. Nick Burchell is the assistant principal at Angley School in Cranbrook. He says: 'Angley has Healthy School Status and as part of this we have a Student Nutritional Advice Committee (SNAC). This is a consultation group and they meet our caterers once a term to discuss our food - the quality, pricing, environment and presentation. They might suggest new toppings for pizza, or request a new salad bar.
'Some of the students from SNAC also sit on the student council so they feed back to the group and more students get involved. One thing that has come out of this is that we are getting a new salad bar and we now display the menus outside the canteen in the morning so that students don't have to queue up at lunchtime to make their choices.
'We have also changed our system of school lunches - we used to have one hour when everyone came into lunch and this got very crowded. We now have two lunchtimes - one for the higher end and one for the lower end of the school, and, introduced a cashless card system so we can monitor what they eat.'
Improving the dining experience was a priority for William Trelawney-Vernon when he first became head at St Ronan's School in Hawkhurst in 2003. He recalls: 'Frankly, the food was pretty revolting when I first arrived - it was poorly prepared and every aspect was below what it should be. We rebuilt the dining room, completely refurbished the kitchen and got a new catering team. We launched a healthy eating campaign and by 2005 we started to win awards from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.
'We source all our food locally but we sit on 250 acres of farmland so our beef comes from our park. We get most of our fruit and vegetables from Hawkhurst, our milk from Northern Dairy, our sausages are from Hoad's and the cheese is from Goudhurst.'
A sea change also took place at Vinehall School in Robertsbridge which has culminated in the school achieving the Food for Life Partnership Bronze Award. Jackie Perry, the domestic bursar, told the Wealden Times: 'We are the first independent school to gain the award. I joined the school six years ago. The chef had just resigned and we had to make a decision as to what to do with catering. Because the food had not been particularly good at that point (this was quite traditional among boarding schools at the time), we decided to use a catering team.
After five years we decided to take food back in-house under my management and this has given us more freedom to buy our own produce. We use a local butcher, we use Kent apples, local organic eggs and all our meat is free range.'
At Dulwich Preparatory School in Cranbrook, a great deal of care is taken in adopting a more homely approach, and in particular, to ensure that children understand the importance of eating well. The catering is run by the welcoming Domestic Bursar Siobhan Highwood. She says: 'I have a brilliant team of 30 ladies who help with the cooking and cleaning of the school, with a core of six who help to prepare the meals.
'We serve approximately 600 lunches a day, and this can be more if we have conferences or special events. All our food is sourced locally - our meat comes from Wilkes in Cranbrook for example.'
A great deal of effort is made to ensure that young people are involved in cooking. Nick from Angley says: 'We have a Ready Steady Cook show every year involving two year groups. The students are given a bag of ingredients and they have to cook something in just fifteen minutes. Audience members taste the food and are often surprised that good food can be prepared so quickly.
'We also run a Young Masterchef event involving all the children in our federation including primary schools. They come along for a day at different times and have a theme, for example, apples, and they have to cook a starter, main course or dessert based on that theme. They cook some really outstanding food.'
At Vinehall, working with food starts at the very beginning as Jackie explains: 'We have planted an orchard of fruit trees donated by parents who have also donated raised beds so that we can grow our own food. The children also have cookery lessons and there is a cookery club.'
St Ronan's also runs a Cookery Club for children. William says: 'Children from pre-prep and prep school take part so that they understand how meals are put together. We also do a two-day workshop called Kids Can Cook for the five to seven year olds. In 2003/4, we re-cultivated the old herbaceous garden which was completely overgrown. One layer is planted up with fruit and our deputy head also has his own veggie patch.'
At Dulwich, the children even help to design the menus, which are set a week in advance. Siobhan says: 'I have four girls who have created a menu that includes lasagne on Monday, chicken fajitas on Tuesday, roast chicken on Wednesday and fish and chips on Friday!
'It is good because we want to listen to what our children are saying. Our ethos is 'try it' - you might not like it but at least you have tried it!
'We also run themed weeks and these can often tie in with what the pupils are studying. For example, the children in Nash House are learning about the Chinese New Year and will be having noodles on Friday.'
Nick says that there has been a massive uptake at Angley for school lunches and he expects this to increase as more adjustments are made. He adds: 'Some parents still struggle with why our food has to be as it is - for example, food is sometimes bland because we're not allowed to put salt in it as it's not good for children. The education side of this is a long process. Our students are given a pre-paid card, which is swiped and registers what food is being eaten. If behaviour is not good we will look at what they are eating and discuss it with parents.'
It was a Vinehall parent who set the ball rolling for the Food for Life Award. Jackie explains: 'This parent used to work for the Soil Association, which introduced the Food for Life Partnership, to encourage healthy eating, providing seasonal fresh and local ingredients where you can.' Headteacher Julie Robinson says: 'It is important to us that the children know where their food comes from and have a good grasp of issues of sustainability. There are important issues surrounding food which our children should be aware of and the Partnership has helped us to improve our food culture, really involving the children. We are delighted with the impact that this is having at Vinehall.'
At Angley, students help to run the school farm. Nick explains: 'This is run by students who show the animals, and we take them to slaughter and we sell the meat. A lot of our students come from farming backgrounds and understand the concept of slaughter and regeneration.'
William at St Ronan's believes we need to have a balance. He says: 'There has been a seismic change in what is offered but you can't lose your sense of humour about it. We still have grub (other schools call it tuck) and they get out their Tupperware boxes with their sweets.'
For further information about Food for Life, visit www.foodforlife.org.uk.