Jaynehowarth’s Weblog

Journalist and writer

Please, sir, I don’t want anymore…return of the junk in school dinners

with 8 comments

Today is Christmas lunch day at schools in Walsall. Tuck into turkey and trimmings (including sprout purée, although I’m fairly certain it isn’t meant to be puréed) and Christmas pud.

Unless you happen to be veggie (and not really vegetarian, either). For today, your Christmas meal will be the delightfully unfestive breaded small fry.

Merry bloomin’ Christmas to you, too.

A bit of effort would have been nice. Even a Quorn fillet as “pretend” turkey would have been good. After all, the authority uses the mycoprotein in other dishes for non-meat eaters throughout the year.

What would Jamie Oliver think?[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=school+dinner&iid=3407920″ src=”b/3/8/c/Awards_Room_At_d08a.jpg?adImageId=8340050&imageId=3407920″ width=”234″ height=”343″ /]

He spent months campaigning to get local authorities to ditch the junk – the turkey twizzlers, the smiley faces, the processed rubbish that required heating up and no skills.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=school+dinner&iid=1333634″ src=”9/7/4/4/Pupils_Make_The_e5b2.jpg?adImageId=8339988&imageId=1333634″ width=”234″ height=”162″ /]

Instead, he called for wholesome dishes: more meat and two veg; more pasta with homemade sauces; risotto; homemade burgers with salad. It was as cheap to produce as the junk, but better for the children – and for the cooks who could use their aptitude in the kitchen once more.

Out with junk

Walsall embraced this in September 2008. Out went the pressed-into-shapes cheap meats, the chips, the waffles and smileys. It blazed a trail. Approximately 15 per cent of youngsters in the borough are overweight, of whom four per cent are obese.

Something had to be done – and schools were in a good position to contributing towards a healthier borough.

Salad bars started to appear in schools, menus were devised that were not only healthier, but looked good and tasted good (nutritious vegetable curries; spag bol with hidden veg; pizza with homemade tomato sauce and more hidden veg).

In with junk?

But, a few weeks ago I spotted something: what was this? Waffles? Smiley faces? Sausage rolls? Back on the menu? Why would this happen?

The number of free school meals is rising in the town – there are now 4,620 children receiving free meals.

According to the report, Walsall Council Leader, Councillor Mike Bird said: “As a borough we have been particularly hard hit by the recession. A good nutritious meal at school is sometimes the only warm meal some children will have.”

That’s right, Mike. The only warm meal some children will have.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=gruel&iid=2544682″ src=”4/a/3/d/Gruel_Rations_95f3.jpg?adImageId=8340112&imageId=2544682″ width=”234″ height=”165″ /]

The authority serves about 7,000-8,000 meals a day. Isn’t it important, therefore, that the authority ensures the maximum nutrients per school meal? Wholewheat pasta bake? Good quality meat and well cooked vegetables? Filling rice dishes? Warming baked potatoes and a filling?

I was given a list of stats that showed the analysis of a three-week menu cycle, showing the proportion of key nutrients. It appeared to show that iron, vitamin A, fibre, protein, folic acid levels exceeded recommended guidelines over the three-week cycle.

I’m not a nutritionist,  but I did wonder why the analysis was not per meal, rather than an overarching view over three weeks. And does the nutritional value depend on what a child has chosen from that day’s particular menu?

But why processed smileys? Why processed waffles? Aren’t we reversing the good work of the past 18 months?

Apparently it is because pupils from ten schools were invited to suggest which food they would like to see on the menu. And – guess what? Smileys and waffles were requested.

The man who says “yes”

Guess what? The council said yes.

Chris Holliday, head of leisure and culture for Walsall Council said: “We’re always looking at ways of making school menus more appealing and nutritious. The menus for schools in Walsall meet all of the 14 nutrient standards for an average school lunch.

“We approached the manufacturers who were able to produce a waffle which is not flash-fried and can be served in compliance with the nutritional based standards. The smiley faces are flash-fried but we’re allowed within the standards to serve two flash fried items per week.

“Both items are oven baked with no additional fat. Waffles appear once and smiley faces twice in a three week cycle but children are offered a potato and bread option.

“We have at least two choices of vegetables that are provided each day and children can eat as many portions of vegetables and salad as they wish.”

Headteachers and cabinet members, however, were not consulted. I was told this was because the authority used a recognised nutritional programme and is guided by the School Food Trust.

One school cook I spoke to was concerned about the number of pastry dishes on the menus and the odd combinations of foods that are considered “balanced” by the authority.

Carb-busting cheese and potato pie and smiley faces anyone? Pizza and roast potatoes? Where’s the balance in that? (And why, while we are at it, are spaghetti hoops and beans – both carbs – considered to be be vegetables?)

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=gruel&iid=2544608″ src=”9/a/3/f/fe.jpg?adImageId=8340193&imageId=2544608″ width=”234″ height=”158″ /]

Can I have more? No thanks.

We have a duty to offer the best food we can afford to our children in the borough. If it is the only hot meal they are having a day, then for goodness sake make it wholesome tasting and looking. And get rid of the junk once and for all.

Written by CommonPeople

December 16, 2009 at 12:41 am

8 Responses

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  1. Well I can’t speak for Walsall, but I KNOW Sandwell’s meals are excellent. I’ve seen them.

    Okay I know someone who works for Sandwell School Meals and the amount of work that is put into them.

    Surely Walsall’s can’t be that different?

    This article smells of typical School Meal bashing. It might make a good read, but like a lot of journalism these days, full of half truths and sensationalism.

    I shall be passing on this article for my friend’s comments.

    Tim Lewis

    December 16, 2009 at 3:20 am

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Tim. Please do pass the article to your friend; I’d be delighted to hear his/her comments.

    This article isn’t bashing school meals in the slightest. The changes made by Walsall Council when it introduced healthier meals was astounding.

    The cooks I spoke to were happier – not only because they were utilising their skills at long last, but because they felt the meals were better quality and more wholesome.

    I’ve also eaten some of them (I can vouch for the vegetable curry, the spag bol, the homemade pizza, the cheese and potato pie and the baked potatoes with filling and salad), which is why the reintroduction of smileys and waffles concerns me so much.

    It’s like the authority wants to go back five years. It has worked extremely hard to make meals better, so why on Earth do an about turn now?

    At the risk of sounding authoritarian, we should be giving children what they should eat and what is good for them. If you ask any child what they want, they will give you a long list of foods, many of which will be junk-laden.

    My children eat healthily (and have their fair share of biscuits and sweets), but they would be exactly the same!

    I’m sorry you think it’s sensationalist – that wasn’t my aim. And I’m not sure what half truths you are referring to – but if there are mistakes in there, please point them out and they will be rectified immediately.


    December 16, 2009 at 7:47 am

  3. As with so many other strategies imposed by this council, school meal provision is driven by solely by economics and in this case, literally bean counting. Processed crap is cheap and easy to serve and to try to justify serving it by saying that kids like it is cynical at best. Okay children, would you like a burger or some sushi for lunch?

    Childhood obesity in the borough is actually running at 25% and although this may sound sensationalist, there is a real danger that this generation of primary school children will be the first in the history of mankind not to outlive their parents. The good work taking place in PSHE lessons regarding lifelong healthy lifestyles is being undone in the canteen and, sadly, at home.

    Desperate to save money wherever it can, the council will sneak more junk back onto the menu as kids are a soft target and can`t vote anyway. The draft budget proposes an increase in the “management fee” paid by schools for the service and so an increase in the cost to parents is inevitable. The cost to children is far more worrying.

    The Plastic Hippo

    December 16, 2009 at 11:13 am

  4. Thanks for commenting, Plastic Hippo. What I don’t understand is that it is usually cheaper to buy ingredients for a wholesome meal than it is to buy junk. I find it hard to believe that they would be cheaper to source. The prepared food was done for ease as much as anything else, as far as I could see. You are right about PHSE making huge inroads to attitudes about food and while the school can do little to influence decisions made at home, it can set a good example with the meals there (and – no – I’m not blaming the schools or the cooks. The cooks have to cook what they are told). I didn’t know about the management fee proposal. We’ll have to see what impact that has. There isn’t an infinite pit of money and I appreciate savings have to be made. But – as you point out – at what cost?


    December 16, 2009 at 2:11 pm

  5. […] Before I’m accused of cherry picking my potato recipe, I will say that the Schools Food Trust’s nutritional standards include other starch-based foods that have lower fat/calories etc – including the dreaded potato waffle that I have bemoaned the return of in Walsall. […]

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