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Independent Green Voice

HEALTHY SCHOOL MEALS AND LOCALISM

According to the Soil Association, 75% of primary schools in England spend less than 50p on food for a school meal.

Jamie Oliver's recent TV campaign has highlighted the 37p allocation for ingredients, spent in some areas of the country. This compares to an average of 60-70p spent in France, Spain, Italy, Finland and Japan.

This under-investment leads to a bias towards processed foods overly high in salt, sugar fat, artificial additives and cheap, imported produce.

This downward spiral began during the 1980s and early '90s when compulsory competitive tendering was introduced under the 1988 Local Government Act. Local authorities were obliged to put school-meal contracts out to tender without any minimum nutritional standards. In the process, kitchens were ripped out of some schools, and in others, the job of dinner ladies was reduced to warming-up the processed foods which were delivered by the caterers.

A COOKERY CULTURE CHANGE
Changing this requires a complete cookery culture change. It requires moving from processed foods towards school meals with ingredients sourced locally wherever possible -- including meats, organic produce, fresh juices, fruit and vegetables -- produced to the high standards we have come to expect from British farmers.

It will require in-house catering teams who have the budget to source locally and the skills to cook the products properly -- in short, a whole change in cookery culture and expectations.

Not only will this improve the diet and health of our children, but it will boost the local economy and support farmers and growers.

URBAN FARMING FOR SCHOOLS
In the short term, rural schools can be better positioned to take these ideas forward.

For example, Landscove primary school near Ashburton, Devon has signed a contract with Riverford organic vegetable farm to provide food, including locally sourced free-range meat, and to cook it in its custom-made kitchen.

Robin Smith, the headmaster says, "We will be planting up little parts of fields and children will be going back to harvest some of those vegetables. They will take them to the kitchen and the cook will help them to prepare the vegetables for that day's school dinner." (Richard Savill, "Green-fingered pupils to grow own vegetables", The Daily Telegraph, 22-3-05, p.4)

However, there is no reason why urban schools cannot develop creative action here too, given the appropriate help, and some are doing so already.

There is no reason why all schools throughout the country can't be sourcing from local market gardens, and farms, or even setting up their own allotments in the city, where the children can learn to grow and cook their own food.

POLICY SUGGESTIONS:
While acknowledging that parents, not the state, are responsible for bringing up children, a fully-funded programme to integrate healthy eating and national food sovereignty would look something like this:

  • Adopt statutory nutritional standards, such as those provided by the Caroline Walker Trust, which have been adopted by the Scottish executive. Meeting these standards requires cooking fresh foods again.

  • Encourage schools to cater for themselves. Many schools source their food directly from large catering companies, which have to make a profit. Cost breakdown is approximately that one third of the price of the school dinner goes on the ingredients, one third on the wages of the kitchen staff and one third to the catering company. If schools cut out the caterer, it can allow them to invest directly in the kitchen, source locally, and improve the salaries of cooking staff. In some cases this will require schools to re-install kitchens which were stripped out years ago and for cooking staff to be reskilled.

  • Encourage schools to source fresh and local food as a priority, and look further afield only when the food product is not available locally.

  • School milk sourced from British farmers, and where and when possible, locally-grown fruit for all primary schools and Britain's 37,000 nurseries, both state and private. Only around 10% of 5-11 year olds have school milk on offer, and most of that is only once a week. This is 1-2% of the UK liquid milk market. It could be at least 20%!

  • Schools to remove all junk-food and drink vending machines. Children high on E-numbers, additives and too much sugar, can't concentrate!

  • Encourage schools to develop own allotments where they can grow their own vegetables providing both an educational and physical experience, as well as healthy food. Nearby farms to be helped to provide fields for this purpose -- a facility which can also be integrated into…

  • Statutory farm visits for all schoolchildren so they learn where food comes from and develop an awareness of agriculture and its importance, which is integrated with…

  • Healthy eating, cooking and home economics on the school curriculum. As Joe Harvey, director of the Health Education Trust says, "The dining room is a classroom", a crucial part of the day's learning and civilising opportunities.

  • Encourage school sports. Children today are leading increasingly sedentary lives, contributing to their ill health and obesity.

  • And last but not least…roll out the locally-sourced programme to hospitals and all public institutions including care homes. However, the bad news is that of the 72 PFI hospitals open or under construction, almost all have been built without kitchens!

To object that such a programme would be "expensive", is false economics, because the money would go back into the local economy. The programme would pay for itself through a more dynamic local economy, a revived farming and market gardening sector nationally, and a healthier population.

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