WATERLOOVILLE, ENGLAND — 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.
"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.
"We started making serious changes from September 2005 in the knowledge that something would happen" with Jamie Oliver's campaign, says Evelyn Cook, food development officer for HC3S. "We took out 70 food additives and removed all processed food. But our numbers fell 6 percent."
The result is that in the Hampshire region, just one-third of children eat school dinners while two-thirds bring packed lunches. "We'd like those numbers to be the other way around," says Ms. Cook.
At one school in Yorkshire, northern England, two mothers have started bringing burgers, fish and chips, and baked potatoes to the school gates for children bewildered by the new healthy options being offered. Julie Critchlow and Sam Walker say their children were left hungry because they didn't like the new fare, and criticized Oliver for making children picky about food.
It remains to be seen if children and their parents will tire of packing lunches and embrace the new menu. Cook says the problem is that many children just don't "understand" the food that well-meaning grown-ups want them to eat. Many children, she says, don't eat stews, pies, and pasta concoctions at home. Some don't even like foods touching each other on a plate, she says, let alone mixed together in a casserole. For them, the new menu – replete with items like Quorn burger (a meat substitute made from fungus) with gravy and lentil curry – is anathema.
Schools try to educate children by talking through the lunch menu and offering cooking lessons, though some of these seem to involve icing cakes rather than slicing vegetables.
But Bignell says schools should not bear sole responsibility for instructing children about food. "Helping the children understand the meal on the plate is as important as helping them understand maths," she says. "I'd like to think parents would do that, but some of them don't."
Oliver agrees that it's not just the schools and the catering firms and the government that are to blame. In a tirade aimed at parents on a follow-up television show, he said: "It's time now to say that if you're giving very young kids bottles of fizzy drinks ... and bags of sweets, you're an idiot, why are you doing that? If you've never cooked a hot meal, sort it out. Do it once a week, please."
Items on past menus
Turkey Twizzlers (Like chicken nuggets. The company that used to supply them to schools has stopped making them altogether. They were singled out by Chef Jamie Oliver as too fatty and processed. They also contained sugar.)
Chicken nuggets and chips ("Chips" are French fries. The new guidelines stipulate no more than two deep-fried items per week. And when chips are served, they may not be salted.)
Burger in a bap (Hamburgers are not completely banned, but may be served only occasionally. A "bap" is a bun.)
A sampling from the new menu
Barbeque pork and noodles
Broccoli and/or salad
Carrot and orange cake or fresh fruit
Jacket wedges (sliced baked potatoes)
Garden peas and/or salad
Cocoa krispie cake or fresh fruit
Beef roast with Yorkshire pudding and gravy
Cabbage and carrots and/or salad
Mini frosted bun and milk or fresh fruit
Carrots and/or salad
Flapjack and fruit juice or fresh fruit
Baked Quorn burger (A vegetarian item made with 25 percent mycoprotein from the fungus Fusarium Venenatum)
Chipped potatoes or bread
Baked beans and/or salad
Chocolate pear cake or fresh fruit