Kids say 'Yuck!' to healthy school lunch
Margaret Beacher looks deflated as she chucks out the leftover pasta and wipes down the work surface. She's been cooking all morning for the pupils of Hart Plain junior school. And yet when lunchtime came, not many children did.Skip to next paragraph
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"There are fewer kids coming for lunch now," she complains. "It's a shame. For a lot of them it's the only hot meal they'll have in a day."
A glance around the lunch hall and you can see what she means. The place is a riot of children, but most are breaking out sandwiches and snacks brought from home. Only a couple of dozen are settling down to Mrs. Beacher's freshly cooked pasta sausage with carrots and salad.
"I used to have school dinner all the time," says Heidi Hedgcock, an engaging 10-year-old who brings a lunchbox from home most days of the week now. "But they got rid of chicken nuggets. I know that isn't the best sort of food, but this [new menu] is not the sort of food I'm used to.
"Now there are some days when I don't like the food altogether," she adds. "Plus some of the meals still came with chips [French fries] but without salt. I can't eat chips without salt."
In schools up and down Britain, a new term has meant a new menu. The nation was shocked last year when a television campaign by Jamie Oliver, perhaps the country's best-known celebrity chef (and there are lots of them), exposed the poverty of school lunches here.
Mr. Oliver established that some schools were spending less than 40 pence (about 75 US cents) per child on lunch – one-quarter of the cost of prison meals. "In the last decade, the number of schoolchildren who are overweight or obese has nearly doubled," he noted. "One-third of our kids are now too fat.
"I wanted to show people what rubbish their kids were getting fed at school," he added, in website reflections on his TV series. "Basically I wanted to get rid of the junk."
His campaign wrung almost half a billion pounds (US $950 million) of cash for school lunches for the next six years from the government, which has outlined new rules on what should and should not be served.
Starting this term, pupils must be offered at least two servings of fruit and vegetables a day, oily fish at least once every three weeks, and no more than two portions of deep-fried foods a week. Processed meat products like burgers and chicken nuggets are to be served only occasionally. Salt shakers and ketchup bottles are banned from dinner tables. Chocolate and fizzy drinks are similarly taboo. But bread and water must be freely available.
Unfortunately, the campaign appears to have turned many children – and their parents – off the idea of school lunches. Some pulled out when they learned from Oliver's television series just how shabby school lunches had become. But ironically many more have recently deserted school lunches because their children don't like the new fare.
Take Hart Plain, for example, a school in the gritty town of Waterlooville in southern England. Headteacher Carol Bignell didn't wait for the government to order her to revamp school lunches. She's been trying to improve the menu for several years. Out went the "cash cafeteria" at which kids could stock up on fries and frosted buns; in came a new roster of hot meals – both meat and vegetarian dishes – and a "light bite" of salad and fruit.
The result has been great – for the kids who still eat school lunch. But Ms. Bignell admits that fewer do. "Take-up has fallen," she says. "Out of 350 children, we used to get 180 having school lunches, but now it's down to 110."
It's the same story in the wider Hampshire county in which Hart Plain is situated. Catering firm HC3S, which provides 450 schools in the county with up to 30,000 meals a day, has noticed a sharp dip as it has changed the menu.