Stealth successes

NEVER WORK with animals or children. Those involved in school catering would certainly agree with the latter after a rollercoaster month which has placed school dinners firmly back on the political and media agendas.


Jamie Oliver got the ball rolling with an attack on Michael Gove, the education secretary. In an interview with the Observer Food Monthly he said: “Two out of five kids are obese. The fact is they [the coalition government] are doing nothing. This mantra that we are not going to tell [academy] schools what to do just isn’t good enough in the midst of the biggest obesity epidemic ever. The public health of 5m children should not be left to luck or chance.”


This was followed with a survey by the Prince’s Trust and the Times Educational Supplement that found 48% of teachers regularly witnessed pupils coming in to school suffering from malnutrition or showing signs that they hadn’t eaten enough. The ATL teachers’ union leader, Mary Bousted, had also suggested in April that there was concern among teachers about the size, quality and choice of dinners.


But it wasn’t all bad news. A report at the end of April, published by the Children’s Food Trust, showed that much progress has been made since 2004. Chip consumption is down from 43% to 7%. An average school meal contains a third less saturated fat. And the number of schools that offer fruit and veg or salad has risen from 59% to 98%.


“This report debunks the myth that children don’t like healthy food,” the trust’s chief executive, Judy Hargadon, told the Guardian. “We’re seeing a significant change in their eating habits. We’ve gone quite a long way on the school food journey but there’s still a long way to go.”


Progress has undoubtedly been made since Oliver’s 2005 TV series “Jamie’s School Dinners.” But what has angered some caterers is that until the Children’s Food Trust survey, much of the reporting had tarred the sector with the same brush.


As Steve Quinn, MD at Cucina Restaurants, suggests opposite, this is “a bit deflating given all the hard work we do”.


Hard work indeed. Lynda Mitchell, national chair of the Local Authorities Catering Association, said the Children’s Food Trust results should “send a strong signal to the government that we are turning the corner in secondary schools and that mandatory nutritional standards are beginning to pay off. However, school caterers know that they cannot be complacent or rest on their laurels.”


This is equally true when it comes to publicity. In the aftermath of Oliver’s interview and the Prince’s Trust survey it was hard to find any comments from caterers anywhere.


Whether this is because the journalists couldn’t be bothered to ask them, or because the caterers couldn’t be bothered to respond, is not clear.


What is clear is that there is an opportunity here: an opportunity for those who are working hard to improve school meals on a budget and who are pushing past the government guidelines to tell people about it.


There are great stories out there, so let’s hear about them. And the way to do that is not just through the media, but by wider communications with the likes of Gove and Oliver too.


The battle between those two, and over whether academies should be subject to the same mandatory nutritional standards as other schools, is likely to continue.


The improvements made through mandatory standards are hard to ignore and the Local Authorities Catering Association, like Oliver, is calling for a single set of mandatory standards applicable to all schools.


Just over half of England’s 3,261 secondaries are or aim to be academies. “The issue with academies is that they sit outside the government’s nutritional guidelines,” says the BaxterStorey procurement and supply chain director, Anil Alim. “So if they come up with something similar, that would be fine, but if we go back to the days of Turkey Twizzlers and chips then we will be taking a step backwards.”


The fact is that a lot of caterers have moved, and are continuing to move, forwards. The problem is that we don’t hear enough about it.