Tag Archives: school food

Go veggie, go!

We all know that the kids stereotype is that children will not ‘eat their greens’ whilst the reality is that most children will in fact enjoy several familiar vegetables, but would you have the nerve – or the capability – to make your school restaurant completely vegetarian?

In the USA, the country’s (perhaps) first ever all vegetarian menu served in a public school has been officially recognised in Queens, New York.

The Active Learning Elementary School serves more than 400 primary children – from nursery age to third grade – with breakfast and lunch every day. They had gradually been reducing the number of meat-based meals they were providing, serving a vegetarian lunch initially three and then four days a week; but from January this year they switched to 100% vegetarian.

Principal Robert Groff who co-founded the school in 2008 said, “The founding of our school was based on health and nutrition and teaching kids how to make healthy choices in the belief that they would be more successful academically and in their life.”



Now a typical menu will include vegetarian chilli, falafel with cucumber salad, a tofu (roasted in sesame sauce) wrap with plantains, or a black bean and cheese quesadilla served with salsa and roast potatoes. On Fridays the children still get to eat a (vegetarian) pizza.

The move came about partly because the school has about 70% Indian and Asian students. Groff said, “We started to watch the kids. One, what they would bring in to school, and two, what they would gravitate towards in the cafeteria.” Observing a higher number of vegetarian choices, the school partnered with the not-for-profit organisation New York Coalition for Healthy School Food to help them make the change, assisted by the fact that the school’s head cook is also vegetarian.

All the meals meet the same mandatory USDA protein requirements as a meat dish would.

Echoing research done by the Children’s Food Trust, the executive director of New York Coalition for Healthy School Food – Amie Hamlin – said, “We know that when students eat a healthy diet, they’re able to focus better. Their immune systems are stronger, so they’re sick less, and then they’re in school more and they’re able to focus and concentrate better, and therefore learn better.”

Most parents have apparently received the changes well, and for those who are less keen Groff encourages them to send their own lunches in. The kids themselves all seem to really enjoy the food, which may be interesting for many school chefs to note.

As mum to a daughter who doesn’t eat meat (we eat fish but not meat) I am frequently perplexed by the options she has for her school meal, and nonplussed by the way she is often treated by the system, and I am far from convinced that the vegetarian dishes she is given have enough (if any) protein in them. So this story is especially interesting to me. Do you think your school would ever be able to serve an all vegetarian menu – even for just a week?

Japanese Lessons

School Food in Japan – Homemade, healthy and social.

The Washington Post had a great little photo feature this weekend (Saturday 26th January 2013) about school meals in Japan that’s really worth a look.

The report visited the Umejima Elementary School in Tokyo and reports that school meals for children there are much the same as their parents – and even their grandparents – were eating for the past 40 years.

Screen grab from the Washington Post - please take the time to look at all their photos.

Screen grab from the Washington Post – please take the time to look at all their photos.

Mostly the meals are prepared daily from scratch in the school kitchen. In the Umejima school a team of 12 begin work on the lunch at 8.00am and by midday they have lunch ready for the 760 pupils. The lunch is well balanced and there is plenty of it. The children typically get a plate of rice, a bowl of vegetables and a broth or soup. There is not generally so much meat but often plenty of fish or tofu and loads of vegetables. The children also get a carton of milk, and in the pictures a satsuma.

This balance makes the meals very affordable to produce. The report claims much of the food is grown locally and that the provenance of the meat is always known. The ingredients are almost always fresh – rarely frozen.

Aside from these practical issues of the food, there are several other really striking differences about the way the Japanese children have their lunch. For starters, at regular intervals in the year a nutritionist gives them a lesson about their food right before their lunch so they understand a balanced diet. “If you finish your lunch you’ll be eating 21 ingredients,” she tells them.

Secondly the children themselves serve the food to their peers. They take it in turns to wear the lunch overalls and then they serve their classmates. The food is not gobbled the instant the child takes their seat, but they wait politely until the others sat at their table join them. And then, guess what, the children clear their plates. The report says that they are encouraged to eat all their food, but in the UK or the US – even with encouragement – how many children will eat all their lunch every day? And finally, at the end of lunch, the children clear and stack their empty plates and bowls and wheel them back to the kitchen for the staff to wash.

I love the social aspect of all this. It’s something I wish they would focus more on in British and American dining halls. It’s so important. In class the children rarely get the chance to chat, and in the playground the dynamic is active and therefore different. But the simplicity of sitting and eating together and just being able to chat and learn more about your friends, and laugh together and share concerns is just so valuable.

I also love the basic manners of waiting for everyone to join the table before eating, and of the simple giving and taking, service and gratitude elements of the children themselves serving the food, and not relying on adults to, well, spoon-feed them, or to take that responsibility and self-sufficiency away from them. The adults guide them on serving size. The children usually eat in their classrooms without the clamour of a large hall.

They’re not allowed to bring food from home, unless they have special dietary requirements – at least until secondary (or high) school. And there are no vending machines. Meanwhile childhood obesity has shrunk over the last six years since the Japanese government grew their dietary education programme. Looking at the global picture Japanese children are set to have longer lifespans than children in any other country, and they have one of the lowest childhood obesity levels in the world. There is also no malnutrition from poverty, although there are some problems of eating disorders and some underweight children. But most schools employ a nutritionist who not only teaches nutrition but also works with individuals who have less healthy diets or are fussy eaters.

The nutritionist is also responsible for designing the daily menus and dishes. For UK and US caterers finding ways to work within the regulation of nutritional guidelines, they may be interested to know that whilst there are broad government guidelines in Japan, there is no regulation. There are no calorie controls. Schools are permitted the freedom to do their own thing and whilst local authorities have the ability to step in if a school were serving unhealthy food, they’ve not so far needed to do that.

Schools don’t serve low fat food. Pudding is only ever fruit or yoghurt. There is almost no fried food, and when there is it’s served in tiny amounts. And, partly because the children eat all their food, they’ve reduced food waste to an impressively minute 5%.

The school principal reports that parents often phone in requesting the recipes for the restaurant standard food the school serves, and in fact the district produces a cook book detailing the best meals they produce. The children draw pictures of their favourite dishes and produce. On their website the school lists the provenance of the ingredients. The recipes change with seasonality.

There are historic post-war reasons why the Japanese have focussed on healthy eating, which you can read more about in the Washington Post feature, but it is clearly paying off. More recently – perhaps to combat an influx of more Westernised High Street or mall foods, there has been a new Delicious School Lunch scheme running for the past five years to help get the kids more interested in their food. The cost to parents is about £1.50 or $3 per meal, which covers the cost of the ingredients. Labour costs are covered by the local authority. There are free and cheaper payment options for low waged families.

But perhaps the main difference is that the Japanese model has achieved something that many school caterers and others interested in school food have started to push for at least in the UK. And that is that the school meal has become a part of their curriculum. In a quote in the feature Masahiro Oji who is a government director of school health education says, “Japan’s standpoint is that school lunches are a part of education not a break from it.”

Something the western school systems could undoubtedly learn from.

World Food Day – Global School Dinner Debate

A couple of weeks ago the BBC’s World Class team hosted an online global chat about school food on World Food Day (16th October).

Children from around the world sent messages about, and photos of their school lunches, and joined in the debate about issues including whether school meals should be free for everybody.

The children’s thoughts and insights were enlightening and thought-provoking, and watching it all play out live in real time was a really wonderful experience.

Here’s a summary of their comments from the two hour conversation.

Kicking off the conversation was Emmanuel from The Sagar School in Rajasthan, India talking about whether children like to eat healthy food.

Emmanuel wrote: “Yes I like to eat what’s good for me because the better you eat, the healthier you become. The good food you eat gives you more energy. You cannot live without food. If you don’t eat food you don’t survive. People in many countries don’t get food. So why waste food? Eat everything you get!”

Also joining the debate were children from Arkatan Primary School in the Arusha region of Tanzania who were online and answering questions from other children. The school are part of the World Food Programme’s ‘Food for Education’ scheme. The WFP provide free porridge and lunch to the pupils every day.

Ghss Kamballur from Kerala, India asked them: “What do you eat there – wheat, rice or any other grain? Is there food scarcity? What do you do in your school to minimise the wasting of food?”

Khaitan Public School in Sahibabad, India sent in some pictures of their lunch but sadly I can’t share the pictures with you.

Pupils from Matero Girls’ High School in Lusaka, Zambia, asked Arkatan School: “How many pupils do you have in the school? What type of food is prepared for the pupils? How do the pupils get to school?”

PSBB KK Nagar in Nagar, Rajasthan, India sent a picture of their lunchtime.

Children from the U.K then joined the debate. Suzie from St Mary’s CEP Primary School in Folkestone, UK sent in a picture of her lunch and wrote: “For my lunch I had mince with mash, peas & carrots. For pudding I had apple crumble & custard, I had water to drink. It was all very nice & I like my school dinners”

Arkatan School sent some answers and a picture back to GHSS Kamballur’s questions:

“We eat maize mixed with beans (makande), morning porridge. For the time being there is drought at our area so there is food scarcity. We prepare food according to school attendances and ration to everybody.”

Chen Chia Ying from Wesley Girls’ High School in Taipei city, Taiwan sent some interesting comments.

“At school, most of the time we have soup, four meat or vegetable dishes, and either rice or noodles for our meals. Students at my school wanted to do something to help the Earth, so a few years ago we started eating vegetarian every Monday. We rarely eat fast food for lunch and junk foods and sugary drinks aren’t allowed in our school. These things help us to remain healthy.”

Joining from South Africa, Danville Park Girls School in Durban shared their thoughts.

Prenisha writes: “At our school a group makes sandwiches for “bread buddies”, that is a scheme where we send the sandwiches to a school which needs them. I love being part of the group because I have seen the smile on the face of the child who receives the sandwiches.”

Arkatan Primary School sent a reply to the questions sent in by Matero Girls High School In Zambia:

“We have 174 Boys and 267 Girls – a total of 390 in the main school. In our pre-school we have 12 boys and 39 girls – a total of 51. They all get maize mixed with beans for lunch, and morning porridge. All pupils attended school on foot.”

The pupils from St Mary’s CEP Primary School in Folkestone returned to share their thoughts on free school meals.

Isabel wrote: “If you live in a poor part of a country like Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria and countries where there have been floods or droughts and the harvest has failed, then I think that all the children should be given free school dinners because your parents won’t have any money to buy food. If you live in a wealthy country most people have enough money to buy food.”

George wrote: “Free school dinners from World Aid, encourage the children in Nepal & other countries to go to school each day and they enjoy school and this helps them to learn more things and they don’t have to starve all day.”

Arkatan Primary School in Tanzania sent some questions for children elsewhere in the world: Where did you get water for cooking in your school? Do you enjoy having lunch in your school? How many cooks do you have?

The Sagar School in Rajasthan, India held a special ‘World Food Day’ assembly and added some more thoughts to the conversation.

Sehej wrote: “I like to eat what’s good for me. I eat healthy food for being fit and active throughout the day. Sometimes, I feel that a change of diet is also a must. So I might just eat junk food once a week. I thank God for whatever he has given to me. Sometimes I also feel that whatever I am getting is more than required and that extra portion should be given to the one who need it most-that is the poor and hungry people.”

Yashika wrote: “I might eat things which may or may not be good for my health. I eat things which I find tasty, but whatever I eat I make sure that I am not overeating or wasting because there are many people starving…”

St Mary’s CEP Primary School in Folkestone, UK came back to say that they are encouraged to bring healthy packed lunches to school. And they sent a photo.

Khaitan Public School in Sahibabad, India, added:

“Our students took a pledge that they would not waste any food on the school campus and they would be more thoughtful towards the people who produce the food.”

Children from Danville Park Girls School in Durban, South Africa watched the short video on the BBC World Class website about lunches in Nepal, Malawi and the UK and shared their thoughts.

Emily wrote: “Watching the BBC clips made me feel very privileged and spoilt, I am grateful for what I have.”

Mariam wrote: “It is very important for children to eat nutritious food, there are many children around the world who have no food to eat. These children should be given food, so that they can concentrate in school.”

Emily and Beth from St Mary’s CEP Primary School in Folkestone, UK added:

“In the UK, only families that don’t or can’t find work should receive money from the government for free school meals. If everyone was able to have a free school meal in the UK, even people who could afford to pay, it would cost the government loads of money & if this was the case we might not have enough money to give to transport food to send away to people in poorer countries of the world.

World Aid should continue to give food to schools as this is sometimes the only food that some children have in a whole day.”

Danville Park Girls School in Durban, South Africa shared what they have for lunch.

Sharlene writes, “I have sandwiches, apple and orange for lunch and apple juice to drink”

Taryn writes, “I have yoghurt, sandwich and fruit, and a snack of sweets and nuts.”

Jitin from The Sagar School in Rajasthan, India wrote: “I didn’t like to eat what is good for me but I still eat it as I know that it will improve my health and clean and energize my body.

“I eat it also because I am aware that many people in the world don’t even get that to eat. If I waste it I feel I have committed a sin as it could have done a lot of good to the many who wake up hungry and sleep hungry, hoping that they might get food the next day.”

Alisha from St Marys CEP School in Folkestone watched the BBC World Class film ‘School lunches in Nepal’ and sent in her thoughts.

“Here in the UK, most of us don’t think about where our food comes from, we just eat it without thinking.

“At school we can even choose what we want to eat from a selective menu and get different meals each day. We also have plenty of tap water that is put in water jugs on our dinner tables.

“In Nepal and some other countries, the children go to school so that they can get a free meal (maybe their only food in a whole day) and that food takes a really long and dangerous journey, that takes several days to reach them.

“They also only have one water pipe coming into their whole village.

“We need to be thankful that we can just go down to the shops to get more food when we need it in England.”

Casey & Mia from St Mary’s CEP Primary in Folkestone, UK both age 9, wrote in after watching the ‘School dinners in Malawi’ film.

“We don’t agree that everyone should automatically get a free school dinner, especially in England,” they wrote.

Joining the BBC World Class debate from Nepal was Amrit from Gyanodaya International Residential School in Kathmandu, saying,

“Yes I would like to eat what is good for me because it provides me with all the nutrients needed for my proper development of body.

“We people of Nepal consider and follow the sayings of Lord Sai Baba that ‘Food IS GOD’”.

“We have some remote places like places of Himalayan region where people have to risk their lives just to get to the nearest shop and buy the food.”

BBC World class added some insight about life at Arkatan school in Tanzania and their participation in the World Food Programme’s ‘Food for Education’ scheme. To run the programme at Arkatan Primary, the community supplies firewood and water. They also helped build the school kitchen and stove.

Abhijeet from The Sagar School in Rajasthan, India wrote: “I don’t like to eat healthy food as most of the food items that are healthy are really not good in taste. But I try some food items as I sometimes think that health comes first. When I got chickenpox, I had to eat food which was healthy for me but extremely bad in taste, but I ate it for the sake of regaining my health faster. So I would say we eat healthy food for health not for taste.”

Amrit from Gyanodaya School in Kathmandu, Nepal, sent a reply to Casey & Mia.

“I think giving free lunch depends upon the condition of the people. In a country like theirs they have less percentage of poverty so their parents can provide them with the food but in a country like mine and India there is high percentage of poverty so schools should make an arrangement to provide free food.”

Khaitan Public School in Sahibabad, India sent a photo of their lunchtime and Shannon at St Mary’s CEP School in Folkstone, UK concluded the debate with an insight into her packed lunch.

It was striking to see the big differences between the schools, and the food the children were eating around the world, as well as their beliefs and opinions about the food.

My thanks to BBC World Class for allowing me to reproduce the debate here. You can join them on Facebook here or track their weekly debates on Twitter using the hashtag #worldclassdebate