Seasonal menus, bake-offs and an army of ‘Jamie Olivers’ are helping more UK schools offer locally sourced lunches. But what’s the secret to making the switch?
At a state school in Harrogate, Steve Ashburn is busy serving 950 lunches to hungry children – using ingredients sourced from local suppliers. The menu is impressive. Options include Easingwold pork escalopes, stuffed with leek and Wensleydale cheese, followed by Wakefield rhubarb possett for dessert.
As a foodie and proud Yorkshire man, Ashburn is a strong advocate for creating seasonal menus using quality ingredients, and putting as much business through local producers as he can.
Within weeks of Rossett school hiring him, the former restaurant chef had set about changing how the children ate, by sourcing ingredients for school meals from his former restaurant suppliers.
“It only took a few weeks before we all sat up and took notice and realised it had real flavour in it,” says Joe Joyce, the school’s director of finance. “We believe feeding the stomach is feeding the mind and we wanted good quality food with varied menus because we really wanted to raise attainment.”
Why go local?
According to the Better Food campaign, there are many benefits to sourcing food locally: it tastes better, it contains more nutrients, it supports the local economy and it is far better for the environment.
But many schools are still getting their food from much further afield. Earlier this month a row erupted in Scotland due to councils spending millions of pounds importing food for school meals – much of which could be sourced in Scotland. The 28 councils that responded to a freedom of information request spent £1.3m on chicken products from Thailand and more than £125,000 on carrots from Belgium.
The national food standards, which schools are legally required to adhere to, make no mention of where ingredients should be sourced. However, the accompanying set of guidelines – the school food plan – does and many schools chose to implement them (although there are no exact numbers).
Tastings and bake-offs
Food for Life, a Soil Association initiative, has been a key driver of this shift thanks to its awards to prove food quality: the bronze, silver and gold catering marks. There are currently almost 10,000 schools with the catering mark – this includes primary, secondary, independents and academies. Over two-thirds (65.6%) of these are silver or gold awarded schools. For the two higher marks, there is a specific incentive for local sourcing but even bronze level asks for schools to use in-season produce, which lends itself to also being local.
Many schools have chosen to take on external companies to help make sure their school dinners are up to scratch. Maltings academy in Witham, Essex, works with Cucina, a catering company for secondary schools that aims to turn Jamie Oliver’s vision of healthy school dinners into reality.
Getting the students involved is also important. Cucina puts its own “Jamie Oliver” – a trained professional chef – in each school to try to continue the work he started. At Maltings, this is executive head chef Paul Skilton. He organises food tastings and bake-off style competitions where students have to source ingredients themselves. He is also a regular in the classrooms, teaching students about nutrition.
We’re lucky in Dorset, as we have so many fantastic local suppliers. We are spoiled for choice
Caroline Morgan, chief executive, Local Food Link
“It’s good to show them what food is all about. It’s not just coming in and cooking. We talk about why you use certain produce, why sourcing locally is good and the benefits of homegrown too,” he explains. “Since I’ve been here the students’ attitudes to food have changed a lot. People buy with their eyes, so if it looks great the kids are interested in choosing it.”
Emma Baker, the school’s headteacher, agrees that presentation is one of the reasons school dinners have become more popular: “You come into our canteen and it actually looks like a proper restaurant. It’s beautifully presented, the menu explains where it all comes from, and pupils are encouraged to try it.”
Eggs to apples
In Dorset, Local Food Links works with schools to put county-grown food in the mouths of local children. “We believe in sourcing locally and making the meals locally to serve our children,” says chief executive Caroline Morgan. “We’re lucky in Dorset, as we have so many fantastic local suppliers. We are spoiled for choice.”
From September 2016 to January this year, 89% of what the company bought – from its eggs to its apples – was from Dorset. Building relationships with local suppliers has been crucial, says Morgan. “Our butcher, for example, knows the meat we buy must be British, but ideally from the south-west. Our butcher is really important to us, but we are also important to him because we put quite large orders in.”
Back in Harrogate, the benefits of switching to good-quality locally sourced produce is clear from the amount of smiling faces in the canteen. And as the school food plan points out, “a half-empty dining hall – like a half-empty restaurant – is certain to lose money”.
Since going local, the school has doubled the amount of students who regularly eat school dinner. Joyce explains: “Financially we want to capture them in year 7 and keep them coming in until they leave at year 13. The less we lose along the way, the more successful our catering offering is going to be.”
Source The Guardian, Tuesday 21 March 2017