February 18, 2013 by Sian Rowland
In yesterday’s Telegraph, the chief executive of the Iceland food chain Malcolm Walker came out on the defensive. The blame for horsemeat being sold as beef should lie with the public sector. Hospitals, prisons and schools- lazy, feckless lot that they are- demanded cheaper food and so the neddy burger and Shergar cutlet came to be. But I’d like to share my insider view to redress the balance.
A few years ago there was a revolution in school dinners.
As any teacher will tell you, meals that were cheap, tasteless and unappetising were on the menu in every school.
Some schools fought hard to have the meals improved but were met at every turn by steely reactions from the caterers and local authority contracts managers. As deputy head I was branded a troublemaker for daring to speak out about the quality of the food. I was told that no one else had complained and that all the other schools in my local authority were perfectly happy with the school meals. So I designed a questionnaire and sent it to every head teacher in the borough. Almost all the replies stated that they too had tried to complain and were told that they were the only ones who had a problem. One head teacher wrote a note on her questionnaire begging me to try and make a change.
The contracts manager- employed by the local authority, not the catering company- came to see me. He asked to see the questionnaire replies and then took them (never to be returned) saying I was not allowed to speak to anyone about school meals. It wasn’t my place. He attacked my head teacher (who wasn’t even involved at this point) and accused her of being a bully that was well known and disliked at the local authority. I’m not sure where he was going with that, perhaps it was a diversionary tactic or perhaps it was a tacit, ‘you’re next, matey.’ It was the most unpleasant meeting I’ve ever had in my life and I ended up saying something like, ‘if we can’t talk about the issue in hand I think this conversation is over,’ and walking away. He shrugged and responded that if I couldn’t be an adult about it then there was nothing he could do. I made a formal complaint to his line manager which was upheld.
Fast forward about a year and I was working full time for the local authority as Healthy Schools adviser which placed me in a position to raise the school meals agenda again. By this time, Jamie Oliver had done his exposé on just how bad school meals were and parents had rallied to the cause. We formed a schools meals development board whose remit was to improve both the food and the dining experience for children in the borough. This was chaired by the contracts manager and although I hated sitting there while he sneered and rebutted every argument, I was with people who wouldn’t allow him to bully them into silence. In the end, parent power won through and life improved with the renewal of the catering contract. The group- made up of parents, head teachers, me, contracts, and by now a food in schools nutritionist (oh heady days!) negotiated a list of demands for a new contract. The hardest thing was seeking the balance between fresh ingredients and appetising, nutritionally balanced meals and cost. We had to find out what parents would and could pay. These new improved meals would also have to be paid for by the council for the pupils on free school meals so had to be worth every penny. If the council was to subsidise the higher cost of the new meals, there would have to be a significant uptake from parents who were jaded and cynical about the meal service.
As a group we discussed portion sizes, dining room spaces and tasting sessions. We counted the number of sweetcorn kernels on a slice of pizza and worked with head teachers to promote social dining and encourage more children to try a meal. The School Food Trust (now the Children’s Food Trust) brought in nutrient standards so that every recipe served in school was a perfect balance for children’s nutritional needs.
At this time the contracts in the two other boroughs where I now also worked were up for renewal and we went through the same process, drawing on lessons learned. Again, a group of us were shut away in meeting rooms discussing cost of raw ingredients and organic milk. New, watertight contracts were negotiated for both boroughs. Alongside freshly cooked food, the caterers would be expected to replace airline trays with china plates and cutlery, provided regular training for server staff and taster and theme days to encourage more children to try a meal.
I lost my job just as the new contracts were about to begin. But the contracts went ahead and although there are always teething problem and ongoing tweaks, the food is now more nutritionally balanced and tasty. At every meal service there is fresh bread, a salad bar and plenty of fresh water. There is a well-designed veggie option (not just a rock solid jacket potato as in the old days) and a selection of desserts including a fruit based pudding, yoghurt, fruit or cheese and crackers. We demanded- and got- Red Tractor farm assured meat only as part of the contract and as a commitment to UK sourced meat.
So although I only speak for the three local authorities I worked for, I can absolutely refute Walker’s claims that schools’ demand for cheap meals are to blame for the horsemeat scandal. Perhaps I’d have agreed ten years which shows me how out of touch his comments are. As the chief exec of a huge food retailer I’d be looking a little closer to home.
*Photos by parent and food campaigner Jackie Schneider.