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Email Education Secretary Ruth Kelly over School Dinners

(1 Post)
FIMAC1 Fri 11-Mar-05 14:22:58

Great Article in the Guardian (with Ruth Kelly's email!)

It's time to junk the junk food

Thanks to a certain TV chef, school dinners are a subject of hot national debate: there is now a great opportunity to change them for the better. Felicity Lawrence and Helen Pidd, together with the Soil Association, explain how

Felicity Lawrence and Helen Pidd
Thursday March 10, 2005
The Guardian

School meals are a scandal. Discuss. Actually, let's not, because nearly everyone now agrees that they are, even the private catering contractors who provide so many of them. Jamie Oliver's School Dinners series on Channel 4 has touched a national nerve in the past two weeks because when he says we are feeding our children "**-burger **" and making them ill, we know it's true.
Every viewer seems to have their own worst moment from Oliver's series. For some it was the sight of hundreds of children queuing up with what looked like plastic dog bowls (flight trays is the technical term for them) to have potato smileys, fishlite fishy shapes or the said ** burgers plopped into them while they turned up their noses at the peas in the very small tin that represented the school's total vegetable consumption. For others it was the physician at the south London hospital explaining calmly to camera that he sees children who are so constipated on their diet of fibreless factory food that their colons have become compacted with excrement and they have started vomiting their own faeces.

Most parents are at best uncomfortable about what their children are given to eat at school. Many of us are downright angry. The majority opt out and prepare packed lunches. School meals are worth more than £1bn a year but only 45% of parents use the school meals service. Even those on incomes so low they are entitled to free school meals often don't want them because they trust the quality so little. Only 82% of pupils in primary schools take up their free meal entitlement and only 73% in secondary schools.

Although pupils typically pay about £1.60 for their school dinner, the average amount actually spent on ingredients is just 35p. Some schools spend as little as 30p. A rough calculation of comparisons shows how much we value our children. Army dogs have more spent on their dinners than that. A soldier gets 54p worth of lunch. A prisoner 74p worth.

Yet private catering contractors complain they are not making any profit out of school meals any more. They have become trapped in their own spiral of decline, with the numbers eating school meals falling to the point where overheads per child are so high it makes running a profitable service difficult.

The rot set in during the late 80s 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 but without the safety net of any minimum nutritional standards. Inevitably a race to the bottom began as privatised local authority services competed with private catering companies to provide the "best value". The cheapest convenience foods and muck off a truck started replacing wholesome meals that required time, labour and skill to produce. School meals that had been a "health and welfare service" introduced in 1944 with the rest of the welfare state were rapidly reduced to a money-making exercise, dishing up deracinated fast food laden with fats, sugars and processed starches held together with a ** of cosmetic chemical additives.

The Local Authority Caterers' Association (Laca) calculates that £154m has on average been saved annually from school catering budgets since 1994 "as a result of competitive pressure". That money, which is equivalent to about 25p per meal, has been used to subsidise other education costs. Despite what they say about the present, the private contractors have taken their profits in the past, too, though no one will say how much they make out of each meal.

At a Channel 4 debate at the Royal College of Physicians in London on Monday that brought together headteachers, caterers, government policy advisers and civil servants, everyone agreed that there was now a rare moment of opportunity. The education secretary Ruth Kelly is due to announce what she intends to do about school meals in the next three to four weeks. The Jamie Oliver series has embarrassed the industry enough and alarmed the public enough to provide the momentum for change. The Treasury, thanks to the 2002 Wanless report into NHS requirements, has done the vital sum on the cost of inaction - treating diet-related diseases already costs the NHS £6.2m a year. The obesity crisis will make that much much worse.

Fortunately Scotland has already shown how it can be done. It has adopted proper nutritional standards for school meals, based on guidelines drawn up by the Caroline Walker Trust, which require school food not just to be low in fats, sugar and salt but also to contain the vital vitamins and minerals children need. It has proved impossible for caterers in Scotland to heed these standards without starting to cook fresh foods again. The Scottish Executive has needed an extra £63.5m over three years to fund the improvements. The Soil Association, which has led the campaign to improve school meals over the past two years, reckons that to do the same in English and Welsh primary schools would cost an extra £200m a year.

If you want to kick-start radical reform of school meals in your area, what can you do? With the Soil Association we have drawn up a plan of action for parents who want to kick the junk out of their schools. You can also tell the education secretary that you want change by writing to your MP now, asking him or her to sign up to the private member's bill on improving children's food sponsored by Debra Shipley MP, or by writing to lobby Ruth Kelly.

One school's story

When Alasdair Friend's caterers told him they wanted to break their contract because they weren't making enough money, he was thrilled. As the head of Thomas Fairchild community school in one of London's most deprived wards in Hackney, he was desperate to improve the quality of food served to his children. About 65% of his pupils are eligible for free school meals but many parents were refusing to let their children eat them because they were worried about the quality. He transferred the kitchen staff employed by the private company Initial (part of the Rentokil Initial conglomerate) to his own employment and doubled the amount spent on ingredients to 70p. By removing the profit and management costs he is now able to provide organic meat and fresh organic fruit and vegetables cooked from scratch. No processed foods are allowed except for fish fingers made with fillet of fish, and chips that are on offer only twice every three weeks. He put the price children pay up 15p to £1.60 and pupils hand out hot, fresh raisin and cinnamon bagels in the playground each morning. Some 95% of pupils now eat school meals compared to 75% before.

"You have to involve the children and tell them why you are doing it and you have to integrate good food into the curriculum," he says. The staff never used to eat with the children - now they do - and every Friday parents can come to eat a good organic meal with them too. "Children who are hungry and eating highly unsuitable things are bound to behave badly," he says. He has also noticed that whereas before a huge number of children needed asthma pumps, now far fewer do.

Basic steps

1 Find out who runs the show

Before you get carried away bulk-buying lettuce and doorstepping dinner ladies, first investigate who is responsible for providing the meals at your child's school. Phone the school to find out. It could be the school itself (rare), a commercial catering company (quite common) or a private, local authority service contracted by the Local Education Authority (most likely). How you proceed depends on your particular situation, but in each case you'll be asking for more or less the same thing - for the school to be part of the Food for Life programme run by the Soil Association. See below for specific step-by-step guides for all three arrangements.

2 Involve the whole school community in the project

You can't do this on your own and you're almost certainly not the only one who wants to see changes. Set up a working group of motivated individuals with specific roles and responsibilities. It is crucial that you involve the whole school community - catering staff, teachers, parents, governors, health professionals and, of course, the pupils. Remember that it's not just lunches which need to change, but possibly vending machines, tuck shops and even the curriculum. The Soil Association is lobbying for all children to visit a farm at least once during their school career and insists that children be taught where their food comes from.

3 Decide what you want

Create an action plan for change. This is not just planning new menus, but looking at the whole production chain, from the suppliers right through to the dining room. In all cases, you will be aiming for the meals to meet targets for sourcing an increased amount of local, organic and unprocessed ingredients, and for menus to meet the Caroline Walker Trust's nutritional guidelines. Basically, this means that school meals ought to contribute to a diet that contains more whole foods, more fruit and vegetables, which is richer in minerals and vitamins (see further resources, below) and less full of fat, sugar and salty foods.

The three scenarios

1 If the school is supplied by a privatised local authority service:

· Contact the council catering services - you'll be able to get the number via your local council switchboard - and discuss exactly what changes to the school's food and nutrition you'd like to see.

· Point the council in the direction of the Food for Life programme.

· If the council isn't keen to change its ways, you'll need to give it an extra nudge. Arm yourself with some incontrovertible evidence - tell them, for example, that as the quality of meals increases, more children will choose them and, before long, general behaviour will improve too. Refer to the government's guidelines on sustainable procurement and recent publications such as the white paper on school meals (see further resources, below).

· Drum up interest and support from other local schools and influential people and organisations in your area.

2 If the school is supplied by a commercial catering company

· Investigate alternative caterers. There are some smaller companies offering healthy school meals, and some bigger firms offer healthier options, although they are not locally sourced, and cost more.

· Contact the catering company and explain to them what changes you'd like to see and why. If they want more information, advise them to contact the Soil Association for practical advice and support.

· If the company is unwilling to ring the changes, find out when their contract expires (these typically last for five years). Bear in mind that the school will incur a significant fine for breaking a contract early, unless it can be proved that the caterers are failing to fulfil their contractual obligations.

· Together with the person at the school responsible for outsourcing the catering, agree the changes you would like to see. These can then be included in the new contract when it is put out to tender. Remember that there could be cost implications, and ensure that other catering companies, including well-placed local businesses, know about it.

3 If the school is already running its own in-house meals service

· Lucky you - you're in a strong position to make speedy changes. First, carry out simple market research among children and parents. What would they like to eat and how much are they prepared to pay for it? Ensure that catering staff are involved at every stage.

· Find local and organic suppliers, always considering the price and taste benefits of seasonal produce. Consider too continuity of supply, delivery times at the school and distribution networks through which local food can be supplied.

· Devise new menus.(d) Carry out an equipment audit. Is more catering equipment required?

· Look at ways to improve the dining room to make meal times more pleasurable: give the place a lick of paint, add tablecloths and posters, encourage teachers and even parents to eat with the children, and involve the children in the preparing and serving of the food.

· Incorporate food and healthy eating into the curriculum.

· Measure your progress - how many meals are sold per week? Are apples outselling crisps at the tuck shop?

· Publicise the changes. There's no point working hard if no one notices.

NB If your school wants to set up its own stand-alone, independent service, you'll first need to write a detailed business plan and carry out a feasibility study. After discussing the plans with your local authority, if you get the green light, follow the steps above.

Lobbying for change

You can do a lot as a parent, but it is essential that the government steps in, and soon. Write to Education Secretary Ruth Kelly at: Sanctuary Buildings, Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BT. Email her:

Tell her that you want:

· schools to be given more money for ingredients for ...

· quantified, enforceable nutritional targets

· schools to be given the opportunity to source locally

· more money to be invested in school kitchens

Please copy us in and let us know how you get on: email We will publish a selection of your letters at a later date.

It is also worth raising issues with your local MP and the leader/director of education at your local council.

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