From free school meals for infants to compulsory cooking lessons, The School Food Plan set an ambitious framework for food and nutrition in UK schools. Alex Manson-Smith looks at the pioneering Hackney school with an Ottolenghi chef in the kitchen, and meets co-author of the plan, Henry Dimbleby, to see how far things have come and what still remains to be done.
School dinners – they’re not like they were in our day. And thank goodness for that. I remember queueing daily for a plate of grated cheese and chips, with some greasy, sugar-laced concoction called chocolate crunch to follow. Either that or I saved my dinner money and spent it on Biscuit Boosts and Dime bars at home time.
Compare that to my five-year-old son’s state primary, Gayhurst Community School in Hackney, where he’s served dishes like butternut-squash lasagne with a spinach topping, or Japanese brown rice with vegetables and tofu. Read the menu (there’s a menu!) and the dishes sound like the sort of thing you’d get at Ottolenghi.
And there’s a reason for that. The school’s head chef is Nicole Pisani, formerly head chef at Nopi, Ottolenghi’s more formal Soho outpost.
She started the role in January, and apart from making us parents completely insufferable (‘Did we mention that Ottolenghi’s head chef is now cooking at Emilio’s school?’ ‘Only a thousand times’), it’s also changed the view of what’s possible in terms of school dinners.
Admittedly, getting her in the first place had a lot to do with luck and connections. Henry Dimbleby, chef and co-founder of the healthy fast-food chain Leon, has spent the past three years advising the government on school meals. He’s also a parent and governor at the school.
“Nicole contacted me on Twitter,” he says. “She was keen to do something more rewarding.” After working 80-90 hours a week in a restaurant, Pisani was looking for a change of pace, and to work somewhere that she could make a difference. Six months in, she’s certainly done that.
“It’s been really fascinating,” says Dimbleby. “Nicole is a real tough cookie. She treated the children as customers in terms of trying to understand what they like and marketing to them as if it were a restaurant.” She’s changed everything, from the cutlery the children use, to the atmosphere of the hall where they eat. Bowls of samphire and seasoned carrots are served on the table, family-style. Prison-style trays are out, while tablecloths and fresh flowers are in.
It all sounds, well, expensive. But here’s the thing – apparently not. “She’s serving much higher quality ingredients but she’s reduced the food cost,’” says Dimbleby. And the way she’s done this is to focus on waste. “As she was serving them more adventurous things she’d stand by the bin so that she could see exactly what they were throwing away. Everyone said it was impossible to do high-quality food on a budget, but by reducing the waste and feeding them what they want, we were able to do that.”
But feeding children what they like doesn’t simply mean indulging their taste for junk. “They get way more vegetables,” Dimbleby explains. “It’s not just the usual peas-and-carrots combo, either – a cucumber salad comes with an anchovy and black-olive dressing, while sweetcorn is topped with ginger butter.”
Pricier ingredients, like fish, are also on the menu. “When Nicole first served fresh fish it took a few goes as they’d only ever eaten fish fingers before, but she persevered with it, and now Friday’s crumbed salmon is one of the most popular dishes.”
Having a fancy chef in one London primary is all very well, but doesn’t count for much unless other schools are in a position to do the same – it is one thing to provide a free meal, another to make sure that it is good or that children will like it. Indeed, in many schools there is a still a struggle to get families to take up school lunches, certainly beyond the free provision in the early years. Significant support and public funding is being made available to schools and to organisations like the Children’s Food Trust though to kick start increased take-up of school food. Dimbleby is confident that this can happen. “We can make mistakes and create a template, and other schools can take the idea and avoid our errors,” he says.
Getting there is not simple though. “Some people think that these national issues can be solved by rolling out approaches,” Dimbleby says. “But in every school that’s done this successfully, there have been great leaders in place. You can make life easier by solving problems for them, but you can’t replace that leadership.”
And it’s easier for some schools than others. Bigger schools like Gayhurst, which has 550 pupils, have a better time making the numbers work.
“Schools are like restaurants in that there’s a fixed cost of doing something and a variable cost of food,” says Dimbleby. “The way the economics works is that you can’t have an empty school hall any more than you can have an empty restaurant. Any school that’s seeing a take-up of fewer than about 150 pupils will struggle to do it on £2.50, which is what the government gives per head for universal school meals.”
But it’s not impossible. “There are some small schools that are doing really amazing things – sourcing food from their own farms, and that sort of thing. But it’s tough for smaller schools.” Help is at hand though – the 2000 smallest schools (those with under 150 pupils) have been awarded £22.5m million by the Department of Education to help them cope.
Even now, the hardest part can be making sure everybody’s on board.
“There are still schools – admittedly a dwindling number – where the heads say, “Well, I was brought up on jam sandwiches and it didn’t do me any harm,” and they don’t think it’s important,” he says. But the situation is vastly improving – and, compared to where we were 10 years ago, it’s a different story.
“When Jamie Oliver came in, food in schools was really bad. Then when we came in, a lot of the really bad stuff had gone, but there was still far too much beige food,” says Dimbleby. But the signs are all good. ” In the sector there’s a massive engagement to improve food – there’s a real energy behind it. Thousands of primary schools are signing up to Food for Life. There’s still a lot to be done, but the first battle has been won.”
Indeed, the outlook is promising. It still requires leadership and that takes time. But as parents, teachers and kitchen staff are made more aware, more will happen. “We’ve passed the tipping point,” says Dimbleby, who, along with his Leon co-founder and co-author of the School Food Plan, Jon Vincent, was recently awarded an MBE for his work changing school food. “Our formal role is finished at the end of this month. The Teacher’s Union, Food for Life – this is where the implementation lies now, and, indeed, that’s where it should be.”
But Dimbleby has a firm idea of where he’d like to see things going. “In five years’ time I’d like to see at least 50 per cent of children able to cook five savoury dishes. I’d like to see a 70 per cent take-up of school food. I’d like to see the majority of schools part of some kind of standards scheme.”
As for Nicole, meanwhile, one of her biggest achievements has been to transform the image of working in a school kitchen. “Working as a school cook used to be considered a very low status job,” says Dimbleby. “Now all the staff in her old kitchen want to come and work shifts in the school.”
To my eternal shame, my own son would still rather have a plate of grated cheese and chips. But softly softly, we’re making progress. Recently he had chicken in soy and pumpkin for lunch. Apparently it wasn’t bad…