Today’s post comes from Paul Aagard, director of Recipe for Change, who have provided TheSchoolBus with excellent guidance on the implementation of universal infant free school meals.
The new school food standards, which come into effect on 1January 2015, replacing the rather more complicated nutrient- based standards, will mean cooks won’t have to fiddle about with recipes trying to make the computer say ‘yes’. Common sense tells you that a menu full of hot dogs and burgers isn’t healthy. You don’t need a computer to tell you. So the new school food standards, which the School Food Plan recommended, and say “are likely to be cheaper to implement because they don’t need a computer and are easier to monitor”, are definitely good news.
But apart from getting rid of the computer administration, what do school cooks and parents think about these new food standards? Will this help uptake of universal infant free school meals and will school that cater to ethnic minorities dish up food that is culturally appropriate to them, instead of being forced to serve shepherd’s pie and fish fingers as dictated by their catering company’s three week menu?
As the new school food standards replace the nutrient-based standards, they have been enhanced and revised so that nutrient values will not be compromised. That means in simple terms that starchy food cooked in fat or oil like chips, for example, must not be provided on more than two days each week. The old standards specified no more than three times a week.
Cash and chips
Now, we all know that too much deep fried food isn’t good for us and, therefore, must be restricted, but from a school cook’s viewpoint and most definitely from the customer’s viewpoint, the children, it’s important that they are still on the menu regularly. Almost every cook I have ever spoken to says that meal numbers are much higher on chip days and roast dinner days – in fact, significantly higher in many cases. The School Food Plan explains that to break even, school meal uptake needs to be at least 50%. For the last 25 years it’s been no more than 45%. “Even leaving out the central government funding for free school meals, schools and councils collectively spend another £140 million or so every year to bridge the gap between the cost of producing school food and the money taken at the till”. So, if chips are helping to increase uptake, they need to be kept on the menu!
A school cook I have been working with recently in Berkshire, who runs her own in-house service, and has increased meal numbers from 18% to 44% in four years after opting out of the local authority catering contract, knows this only too well. When faced with the choice of being offered a combi oven to help cater for all the universal infant free school meals in September or an additional fridge and a bit more work top space, she opted for the fridge. Why? Because installing the combi oven would mean she would lose her fryer. “I know the combi oven would be great,” she said, and “we could cook oven chips, but I know my children and they won’t like them as much as proper deep fried chips. I am concerned it will reduce my uptake”. So she has decided to make do with an additional fridge and forgo the combi oven, because it’s about giving the customer what they want whilst still complying with the school food standards and continuing to trade profitably. This strikes me as a sensible and healthy approach. It will safeguard her uptake and the school will continue to benefit financially from their in-house catering.
100% wholegrain or half/half
So, what do parents think about the school food standards? I consulted with well over 20 parents at a school in Hertfordshire recently who expressed very mixed views on just how much wholegrain should be added to wholegrain bread. Some agreed with the school meal caterer who said their wholegrain bread has a 25% wholegrain mix. This, they claim, is much more likely to be eaten than bread with a much higher wholegrain mix. Other parents disagreed and felt the caterer should provide 100% wholegrain bread. Parents said the school should then find ways to encourage children to try it.
The school food standards recommend a half/half wholegrain and white mix. So what is the best approach to take? (To promote variety the new standards want three or more different starchy foods provided weekly, including at least one wholegrain variety.)
Charlton Manor School have a fantastic good food culture, and they use food and diet as a way to inspire and motivate their children. If a child is finding it tricky to try new foods then the active involvement of, for example, chefs that work regularly in the classroom, their school kitchen garden and an IT curriculum linked to food are all ways to help encourage them. If more schools adopted these strategies then the introduction of 100% wholegrain bread and other very nutrient rich foods are likely to be successful and be perceived by the children as normal and acceptable.
The new school food standards allow cooks to be more creative and respond to what children want to eat. This is great news and will help to ensure that uptake continues to increase.
School food standards success criteria
Ultimately the success of these standards and the school meal service is down to making healthy eating exciting and interesting, like Charlton Manor School do. It’s down to serving plenty of culturally-appropriate crowd pleasers; down to engaging with parents so they are aware meals are tasty as well as nutritious; it’s down to reassuring parents that if their children are struggling to eat healthy food, they are involved and consulted, otherwise they will opt for packed lunches; and it’s down to creating a calm and social dining room environment so children want to eat together, eat better, and engage in good conversation.
Visit the School Food Standards on TheSchoolBus.
For resources, templates and guidance on UIFSM, please visit TheSchoolBus.