Today’s post is by David Dixon, NAEE Trustee and author of Leadership for Sustainability: saving the planet one school at a time (Crown House Publishing, 2022). David is Tynedale’s Bicycle Mayor. As usual with our blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily shared by the Association.

Recently school meals hit the headlines when a headteacher in a letter to parents complained about the poor standard of food being served up in his school by an outside catering company. This went viral and the whole issue of dubious quality meals in schools became a national talking point. This has happened every so often for decades. Over 10 years ago Jamie Oliver was the most notable figure to intervene and suggest ways forward. People of my Baby Boomer generation remember the meals we had to endure in the form of greasy Spam fritters, custard that didn’t move and some type of tapioca which we nicknamed ‘frog-spawn’. We also had vegetables cooked to a slushy mush and grisly meat that refused to disintegrate in the mouth even after copious chewing. Nobody thought to complain about this, it was just something everyone accepted as the norm. Talk about us being boiled frogs of the system! Perhaps we would have been literally better off eating boiled frogs.

 When I was a headteacher over 20 years this subject perennially reared its ugly head and was less easy to dismiss owing to the rise of Pupil Voice. Our school council was unrelenting in its disdain for the school meals on offer, with many children voting with their mouths and preferring to bring in packed lunches. This was a double whammy to good nutrition because many of these lunches were of poor quality themselves, being made up of things like white bread jam sandwiches, chocolate bars, cheese string, crisps and sugary drinks.

In my first school we had an outside caterer provided by the local authority, who studiously ignored all our complaints and carried on regardless. Perhaps their thinking was that because the meals were provided by the LA we should all be grateful and accept their superior wisdom on the matter. After all, we were told that they complied with nutritional guidelines to the letter. However, I pointed out that if most of the food ended up in the waste bin, this nutrition only ended up in landfill and not in the bodies of our children (pigs having been banned from utilising it some years earlier because of disease risks). After much lobbying for improvement, I decided to take the momentous step of taking the catering in-house. We worked with the excellent ‘Food for Life’ organisation to do this, which entailed training up our catering staff, sourcing local organic food and extending the range of choice, in tandem with arranging tasting sessions for parents and children so that menus were co-created. We also bought special software that made sure we complied with nutritional standards. All this fitted with our larger aim of becoming a Sustainable School. Through local sourcing and increasing vegetarian options, we massively reduced our carbon footprint. Also, we could put more money into each meal through having more efficient systems for procurement and not having to pay for local authority overseers. 

We also worked on making the experience of dining more pleasant. Plastic trays with dents in them into which the food was often unceremoniously slopped were ditched in favour of china plates. Calming music was played in the dining room and we installed a noise meter in the form of traffic lights. If the light went to amber or red, the children soon learnt to stop shouting across the table, thus civilised conversational dining was born. We also had older children serving food to younger ones which made it feel like a family service. As so few children actually sat down to eat at a table at home using a knife and fork, we taught them how to use cutlery in lessons. In Early Years they would cut plasticine into manageable chunks as they would when eating (and yes, we did make sure they didn’t eat the plasticine!).

A school garden was created and the fruit and vegetables were used in the school kitchen. Through this we aimed to give every child a ‘Seed to Plate’ experience. This was Head, Heart, Hands Environmental Education par excellence and enriched many aspects of the National Curriculum. It also helped general well-being and encouraged families to become involved with the school garden. The skills learned there were often used back at home to establish their own food growing. As we served a catchment of severe deprivation, this gave the activity even greater added value. 

The main cook became out ‘Catering Manager’ and had a seat on the Senior Leadership Team. She was instrumental in making the takeover a success. She interacted more with the other staff and better understood how the catering side of school fitted with raising academic standards and how she could contribute to this i.e. indirectly by providing good food the children would eat and directly by helping teachers to integrate food growing and cooking into the curriculum.

To start with we were treated as a pariah by certain parts of the LA; but as the project rolled out, the penny dropped that it was a Good Thing, especially as it was seen how it fed (pun intended) into improving standards as understood by Ofsted and School Improvement partners.

When I moved to another school, a similar situation pertained. This time though, the meals were provided by a commercial catering company. Once again Pupil Voice prevailed and once again a take-over was planned and implemented. This time we were putting significantly more money into each meal because unlike the caterers we were not for profit and weren’t worrying about shareholders. No, we were worrying about our main stakeholders, namely the children in our care. How can you educate anyone properly if you don’t cater (in more ways than one) for their basic needs? The maxim ‘You Are What You Eat’ is very pertinent. Since becoming a consultant I’ve visited quite a number of private sector schools and there you see fantastic meals being served on a par with any good café or restaurant. So, if it’s good enough for children in these schools why not for the rest? Of course, the private sector doesn’t have to cow tow to PFI contracts or other legal and financial constraints that inhibit what they provide.

In my second school we also reaped another benefit of catering take-over in the form of improved social cohesion. The school demographic was highly multi-cultural. The Muslim children were provided with halal meat which was a bone of contention with others. Ironically, this wasn’t due to the slaughter method, it was because non-halal eaters were jealous of the quality and quantity of meat, they saw others having. This problem was solved at a stroke because apart from fish we went entirely vegetarian.

By having in-house catering we could be entrepreneurial and earn income from some activities. In my first school we provided meals for pensioners one day a week (served by the children) and also catered for conferences and meetings held at the school. We could also cater for school parties and make sure they had fun food, but without the gorging of sugar and fats. 

As mentioned earlier, the catering revolution we instigated was a significant part of our drive to become a sustainable school. We cut our food waste, enriched the curriculum and community and joined the circular economy, rather than contributing to the linear Take, Make, Use, Dump model.

 Our first partner organisation’s name sums it up; we were providing ‘Food for Life’ in the widest sense. So, let’s hope the latest iteration of angst about school meals is the last in the series. Unless we get profound policy and attitude changes from the Powers That Be, I fear it won’t!

You can read more details of how food provision can help to deliver sustainability and environmental education in schools in my book ‘Leadership for Sustainability: Saving the Planet One School At A Time’. See also Food For Life


David can be contacted at:

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