A week on the School Food Standards

The Key

On New Year’s Day major new food regulations came into force in schools, affecting not just lunches but also what schools can sell in tuck shops. The School Food Standards 2015 set stringent rules on how school food is prepared and what goes into it. We’ve already had questions on the nitty-gritty aspects, looking at issues such as whether catering staff will require training. The Key’s researchers got talking more generally about whether the standards will have the desired impact on pupil health.

The Standards, influenced by foodies like Jamie Oliver and the chefs at Leon, are a far cry from the lunches most of us remember from school. Our discussion threw up a lot of nostalgia among the research team for pizzas, cheesy chips, and those tarts with chocolate toothpaste on – they were brilliant. But delicious as they were, I’m not sure they did much for our health, or our attention span in class.

Turkey Twizzlers and smiley faces, photo by rjp on Flickr.

Turkey Twizzlers and smiley faces, photo by rjp on Flickr.

Inspired by the film Supersize Me, we decided to see what all the fuss was about (though only for a week). I’d stuck my hand up to volunteer before I’d properly thought it through. I realised I didn’t know what the School Food Standards have to say about glasses of wine with meals. Perhaps I’d better call the Department and check…

By a fortunate loophole, it turns out there’s no mention of alcohol, though I’m not sure you can interpret this as giving a free rein. (Anyway, think of the expense – unless of course you introduced artisan brewing as part of technology.) Even if they did rule out alcohol, the Standards only affect what pupils eat during the school day. They can, and often do, drop in to the chip shop or newsagent on the way home. So is it worth all the fuss just to change one square meal a day?

Safe in the knowledge I’d at least have a normal dinner to look forward to after work, I took to Twitter for some inspiration. There’s a fantastic colony of dedicated school chefs out there happy to share their recipes. They’ve become some of my favourite Tweeters, ensuring my feed is always filled with food that is as beautiful as it is healthy.

Carol’s Thai green curry and mint rice was one of my favourite meals of the week. You can get the recipe at the end of this blog.

My attempt at healthy bolognese-stuffed peppers. Slightly charred.

My attempt at healthy bolognese-stuffed peppers. Slightly charred.

We originally wanted to have my fellow researcher Fern do a parallel week-long Turkey Twizzler diet to compare the effects. We were amazed and – to be honest – a bit sad and nostalgic, when we found out that following the scandal raised by Jamie Oliver, they were removed from production in 2005. Fern settled for a lunch from our local chicken shop instead.

“I think it has a negative effect on my productivity,” she admitted, drooping in the drowsy afternoon following her chicken burger.

On the other hand, I was surprised by how full and energetic the school food left me feeling. I have generally avowed in the past that fat and protein are “brain foods”, but I didn’t feel hungry or distracted after Carol’s veggie pasta bake. I can imagine feeling a lot more motivated in school than if I’d been running on cheesy chips.

I also stuck to the rules about avoiding confectionery, which meant a week of avoiding the corner of our office where we leave out chocolate biscuits. I did make an exception, as the standards allow, for a slice of cake when we said a fond goodbye to our researcher Elaine, who is off to pursue a career teaching English in Spain – it’s a good thing we found out that the standards allow for treats at celebrations.

Researchers saying farewell to Elaine - with chocolate cake.

Researchers saying farewell to Elaine – with chocolate cake.

Award-winning chef Tony Mulgrew caters for Ravenscliffe High School – some of his recipes can be found on the school website. He suggested getting involved in the Food For Life Project, which has had a big impact on his school.

“It’s up to headteachers and governors to get the whole school engaged,” he said. This might mean weaving food education right through the curriculum, but also engaging with the local community, particularly local food producers.

Mark Webster, the chef at St Anne’s Academy, also urged schools to think about a whole-school food policy. “The possibilities are endless”, he said. Vegetable plots, bees, chickens… but all of these ideas need to be driven from the top.

A week might not be enough to have an impact on my health, but it had a definite impact on how I thought about food. I was more conscious of when I was frying in oil or butter. I even had a dry week! Thinking about what I was eating made me more aware that having a glass of wine in the evening does add up.

That is, ultimately, the greatest benefit of the School Food Standards. By understanding the reasons behind them, pupils will learn vital lessons about nutrition. Lunchtime becomes a chance to learn and try new things. The excellent example being set by caterers like Tony, Carol and Mark will certainly help.

Carol’s Thai green curry with mint basmati rice and sweetcorn

Makes 72 portions

Ingredients

Curry

4kg Quorn pieces

900g chopped onion

8 cloves crushed garlic

5 tsp ground coriander

5 tsp ground cumin

480g Thai green curry paste

8 sliced green peppers

1kg sliced green beans

8 to 9 tins coconut milk

720g sliced mushrooms

240g Flora oil

Rice

2.16kg basmati rice

25 to 30 chopped mint leaves

3.6kg sweetcorn

Instructions

  1. In the Flora, sauté the onion, garlic, peppers, mushrooms and Quorn until lightly browned.
  2. Add the Thai green curry paste and stir.
  3. Add the coconut milk and sliced green beans.
  4. Cook the rice and sweetcorn separately. Fold chopped mint into rice before serving.

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