Category Archives: Europe

School Food and the BBC Food and Farming Awards

The BBC Radio 4 Food Programme has announced its shortlist for the 2012 Food and Farming Awards and there are a number of schools related projects or workers that have made the grade.

They include, (and I hope the BBC Food Programme website will forgive me for recreating their words verbatim)

In the Best Public Caterer category:

Lyndsey Anderson – Excelsior Academy, Newcastle. Excelsior Academy is a community mixed school serving the Benwell and Scotswood area of Newcastle upon Tyne. The nomination said, “I am truly impressed with the philosophy and attention to detail of the food choices, menus and presentation of the food.”

Elaine Harrison – Pingle School, Swadlincote. The Pingle School is a foundation school within Derbyshire. The nomination said, “Theme days are a regular feature of the service and have recently included French days, Spanish days and a special Jubilee day serving traditional food in a street party atmosphere.”

Chris Marshall – Scalby School, Scarborough. Scalby School is for boys and girls of all abilities aged 11-16, serving Scarborough and surrounding villages. The nomination said, “95% of all ingredients are sourced from within North Yorkshire to ensure green miles are reduced from field to plate & good growth in the local economy.”

and in the Derek Cooper Award category:

Chefs Adopt a School, is focused on the education and training of young people in the hospitality industry through the provision of career opportunities; recognising and rewarding talent and skill; and raising standards and awareness of food, food provenance, cooking and service. The nomination said “Chefs Adopt a School has opened a special door to the world of food… teaching about a range of food, where it comes from, why we need it, what to do with it, how to handle it and how to enjoy it in the company of others.”

Let’s Get Cooking, Sheffield. By the end of this five-year programme 1,106,300 children, family members and members of the local community will increase their food preparation or cooking skills as a result of Let’s Get Cooking. The nomination said “Let’s Get Cooking is about much more than cooking skills, it brings people together and builds social skills, reflecting the very best of human nature.”

Martha Payne, Scotland. This school girl’s food blog, Never Seconds, and her pictures and reviews of her school lunch is now being read all over the world, fuelling debate about how we feed our children. The nomination said “A young child not only writing about food, but writing well, generating more writing from other young people all over the world and in the process raising interest and discussion. Not to mention changing fundamentally the relationship some children in Malawi have with food – by raising an astonishing sum to ensure they actually have some.”

I know many in schools catering feel their work is overlooked or constantly criticised, rather than celebrated when things are going well or are making a difference, so that the Food and Farming Awards are striving to mark and recognise great achievements and good practice in schools catering is wonderful. We offer our congratulations to all the finalists and best wishes for the awards day on 28th November.

Apologies and European School Food

So poor School Food World has got off to a rather bumpy start. Having launched it when I was quiet, I am suddenly inundated with work and have had to set the site on the back burner.

But my ideal is to post about school meals around the world if not every day then every other day, and my intention is that I will get better at finding the time to do that.

So finding myself with an unexpected extra hour this morning I thought I would attempt to get back on track by highlighting a recent post on the European Food Information Council website about school meals and nutritional standards. Unfortunately it’s not credited so I can’t say who wrote it, but it is an academic style summary of the way food is served and provided to children in different European countries. It also cites a number of studies and further references which is handy for me to do additional research.

After pointing to the benefits that nutritious school meals can have for children and their learning, the article goes on to describe some examples of best practice in different countries.

I particularly like the idea of a ‘plate model’ that’s used in Sweden and Finland where all school meals are funded by the government. Although children receive their food from a central server, the plate model at the start of the process allows them to serve themselves, but shows them roughly how their plate should look at the end.

This way of engaging children with the food selection process is a fantastic way of teaching them how to construct a healthy meal for themselves. If food is simply dropped on a plate by one of the school caterers, how much are the children involved with understanding the way the plate is made up? By allowing children to construct their own plate, you can have a conversation with them about how much protein, dairy, vegetables and carbohydrates should be there, and what excellent lessons and understanding to receive at such an early age. Invaluable for them going into the future.

Of course for caterers in the UK portion control would be an issue, which is perhaps why this works in countries where the food is funded by the government. But I would love to see a UK caterer trial this – perhaps amongst juniors rather than infants – and see how it went. I think most children would be sensible and know not to take too much of one item. Controls could be used by offering second helpings if children are still hungry and food is available at the end of service. Or turn it into a game where children receive a sticker if their plate closely resembles the model. What do you think? Would you be prepared to let juniors serve themselves?

In France school meals are constructed from a series of basic elements. Each lunch consists of a main, a side, a dairy item and a starter or dessert. The main will consist of meat, eggs, fish, cheese or offal (can you imagine the faces of British children?!).

French standards apply to lunches and sound complicated but I suspect are more simple when you know them. Based on a 20 meal rotation, restrictions are placed on how often items are served. So at least 10 of the 20 meals must have cooked vegetables, eight meals will be served with a fresh fruit pudding, 10 meals will include starchy foods, cereals or pulses and so on. Portion sizes vary according to the age of the children.

Some of the Benelux countries – the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Denmark – as well as Portugal, Switzerland and Austria (and also New Zealand and South Africa) do not have a well established school meal system. Mostly that’s because children tend to go home to eat because the school day ends early in the afternoon. Finnish children are not allowed to bring a packed lunch.

The article concludes that although standards applied to school meals are to be applauded, they will only work if children like, choose and eat the meals. It cites some examples where children are involved with menu selection and taste testing, and this again I think can only be beneficial for schools, caterers and children.

Everyone in a school needs to be fully engaged with the discussion and provision of lunches or take-up will continue to falter. Head teachers, governors, parents and children should be involved with – and excited by – meal options and be involved with the choices. Time and again it’s been shown that where the school kitchen and lunch is fully integrated as a part of school life, and children are involved with growing ingredients, or designing the meals, or tasting them, that catering provision will thrive and take-up will climb.

I’d love to hear about schools where this is happening and thoughts about how do we get busy head teachers and governors to really get behind their food provision.

Paying twice for packed lunch in Spain

A troubling development in school lunches emerged in Spain this week. The government has announced that schools could begin to charge parents who choose to send their children to school with a packed lunch when the new term begins.

The story was widely reported across the globe but was initially picked up by The Telegraph.

Counting the packed lunch pennies

The charge to be levied against parents amounts to €3 (£2.36) a day and is deemed to be for the cost associated with children using the dining room and associated supervision.

In Spain school children have a long two hour lunch break and it has been usual for them to eat a hot lunch in the canteen. Parents pay a monthly fee of about €4.50 per day (£3.50). Schools make a profit from the lunches and the extra is used to fund things not covered by their education budgets.

Grants have been available to assist low income families with school meals, but Spain has been caught up in the Euro economic crisis and austerity measures imposed by the government have forced regional education boards to make cuts.

With unemployment rising to 25%, many families had begun to look to save money by sending their children to school with a packed lunch. The new charge will largely negate any savings they might have made, but school councils have argued that the fee is necessary to pay their catering contractors for canteen equipment and staff providing supervision.

Parents have reacted angrily and the situation has not been helped by regional differences in the charge. In the Catalonia region parents will be asked to pay up to €3, but in Valencia the fee will be no more than €1.45 per day.

Meanwhile Spanish finance minister for Madrid, Percival Manglano, announced on Tuesday that it would be up to individual school boards to decide what – and whether – they will charge.

In the Madrid region €26 million have been cut from grants for school meals and text books in the new school year, so it’s easy to see why parents have begun to choose packed lunches.

Parent groups have pointed out that the charges will affect the worst off in society, and have even warned that it may lead to some children having to skip the meal completely. President of the Catholic Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, Luis Carbonel was quoted saying, “It seems excessive to charge to fill the dining room or for use of a microwave. It may mean that those hardest up might choose instead to feed their children big breakfasts to see them through to the evening meal at home.” Meanwhile Jesus Maria Sanchez, president of the Spanish Confederation of Associations of Parents called the charge “barbaric”.

I wonder what schools caterers in the UK make of this development? They have battled through tough times in recent years when meal uptakes dropped right off following the initial school food changes seven years ago. I wonder if any of them ever considered charging kids who brought a packed lunch?

Currently free school meals offer caterers a degree of cushioning from hardship. If you’re providing meals in an area where few can afford them, a good take up of free school meals and the pupil premium that comes with it can help caterers to stay afloat.

But the massive shake up of the benefits system that’s due in 2013 in the UK when Universal Credit replaces all the current benefits, has the potential to create a big impact on schools caterers. A working party has been looking at ways to incorporate free school meals into the new system without seeing families lose out, but has struggled to find a solution that avoids the ‘cliff edge’ that Universal Credit hopes to eliminate.

An obvious solution is to take free school meals out of the benefits system and instead give it to local councils who already determine Council Tax benefits for low income families, and also control the budget to local schools, but in the long term, could this lead to the very situation we’re now seeing in Spain should the recession continue?

Once again school meals proves to be a difficult and potentially thorny political issue that is far less black and white than simply ensuring kids are well fed at school. It would be interesting to hear what caterers think about this situation.