Is the future of school food dead?

07/11/2008 - 00:00
With school back in session and countless articles in the media pointing to evidence that children are increasingly against the new nutritional standards, Steve Quinn MD of school caterers Cucina explains how they work to make children's perceptions more positive.

"Recent articles warn of the collapse of secondary school catering, citing that it is becoming unviable and will have to cease being offered across the country. This is of course following on from Jamie Oliver's campaign two years ago which highlighted deficiencies in school meals services, which the Government addressed via the setting up of the School Food Trust, who then introduced a series of guidelines banning chocolate, fizzy drinks and much more. Unfortunately what happened is that usage plummeted across the country and costs to schools rose dramatically as a result. Schools face challenges on balancing their budgets and tough economic times, but there are always opportunities to streamline operations and enhance the quality of meals produced, not necessarily by increasing costs. The rebellion has happened in school food too. The "you must eat this because it is healthy" message is falling on deaf ears, not surprisingly. So is it true that kids will not eat good, nutritious food by choice? We don't think so. It is a question of approach. Here at Cucina, a company I set up two years ago in the aftermath of the Jamie Oliver campaign, we have seen usage soar to double and treble those experienced before we took over in most of our school restaurants. We now have 21 restaurants across the UK. There is no magic wand of course, the solution revolves around giving customers (as school kids are just that) good foods that they want at a price they can afford to pay. In this regard food service to any group of customers has never been any different; it's just a question of the how to achieve it. Cucina took over the catering contract at its first school, Southfield School for Girls in July 2006, prior to which less than 10 per cent of students and staff paid for school meals. Most pupils opted to bring in their own packed lunch, which often included crisps and chocolate. Cucina was brought in to replace menus designed by Jamie Oliver, which had failed to inspire the pupils for the previous 18 months. Cucina immediately exceeded the food-based standards at Southfield, creating exciting menus designed by a top nutritionist and baking fresh bread and pizzas daily. Using a 'stealthy approach' Cucina has managed to get extra nutrients into pupils' diets. The first impact at Southfield was the uptake of food, which had quadrupled within a year of Cucina's involvement. We took more money on the first day than Southfield used to in a week and now more than 600 girls enjoy a cooked meal at lunch time. Sixth formers who have never had school food are now converts. The girls' behaviour has improved because they are eating better quality food at break time and at lunch and now have a more balanced diet. The increase in usage has allowed Southfield to practically eliminate hefty catering costs. The kitchen was losing £45,000 a year under the Jamie Oliver regime. Takings were just £100 a day and there were regularly more than two full bins of waste. Takings now top £800 a day. Menus are designed by consulting a nutritionist, who ensures all important food groups are included. For example, we have recently introduced square burgers, which contain carrots, celery and onions made by a local butcher using all British beef. No matter how good the menu is, fresh ingredients are required to ensure menus are nutritious. Educating students is an important part of what we do too, so that students are learning during their dining experience. We have developed Kitchen Theatre, where chefs create their food and perform in front of the pupils. In Kitchen Theatre, pupils can see how food is prepared right in front of them. Staff are also fully trained about the menus and can discuss the nutritional benefits with pupils and staff. We display "Food Facts" every day as part of our approach to educating. Whilst nutritional requirements are an important part of menu development, it is important not to lose the fun factor in eating, after all foo

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