Charters school’s lunch menu could easily fit in with those of an upscale café or a decent restaurant. The main course options such as lamb curry, mushroom risotto, courgette, and red onion flan, and pumpkin and butterbean cobbler, followed by desserts such as flapjacks, banana cake, and wholemeal shortbread all cost only £2. This appealing and nutritious lunch menu has increased the number of students opting for hot lunch from less than half in 2006 to 60-70% today at the 1,640-pupil school in Ascot, Berkshire.
Vanessa Stroud, the business manager at the school, attributes the rise in popularity to the high-quality menu and the schools super-healthy food standards. Cater Link, which provides around 900 meals daily at Charters, has been lauded for their commitment to using fresh food, which is prepared daily in the school’s kitchen. Other schools in the Windsor and Maidenhead borough have decided to appoint Cater Link as their provider of lunch as well.
Improvements in the dining area and the organization of the lunchtime have also been significant factors in the increase of students choosing hot lunch. In 2004, the school introduced staggered lunch breaks to accommodate the number of pupils. Now, three half-hour slots for lunch start at 11 am, allowing room for three different groups to eat at different times to avoid overcrowding. Charters spent £50,000 to upgrade the canteen and kitchen area, including new folding tables, realigning the seating layout, and new ovens that have reduced preparation time. This summer, the dining room and kitchen will receive new floors.
The lunch menu now includes fruit, vegetables, or salad. Junk food is no longer offered, and there are minimum standards for carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and limits on levels of fats, salt, sugar, and saturated fat. The school vending machines no longer stock junk food.
The School Food Trust oversees the transition from unhealthy food to healthy meals and helps schools tackle issues that deter pupils from eating in the canteen, such as cramped dining areas, frustrating queueing systems, and outdated payment systems. The chief executive of the School Food Trust warns that investments made since 2005 in improving school food could go in the bin unless schools also ensure appealing environments for children. Increases in take-up across England have been noted, yet the percentage of pupils choosing school meals is still only 41.4% at primary schools and 35.8% at secondaries.
Rees, a school food advisor, suggests various ways to encourage students who typically bring packed lunches or visit nearby takeaways to try the school canteen instead. This includes taster sessions with the school cook, where students can watch the preparation of dishes and then sample them. Rees also recommends introducing cashless Swipecard payment systems to speed up queuing times and allow students to spend more time with their friends. However, he is concerned that some schools are not doing enough to increase the uptake of school meals, and urges them to realise the benefits of providing tasty, nutritious and affordable food. Rees believes that school dining rooms should aim to rival high-street food chains like Pizza Express, with comfortable seating, clean facilities, fresh food and efficient service, making lunchtime an enjoyable and fun part of the educational experience.
However, government policies, such as the scrapping of the extension of free school meals to low-income working families and pilot projects exploring the practicalities of free school meals, pose a challenge. Fortunately, some councils, such as Islington, have taken matters into their own hands, investing in school meals and introducing smartcard systems to reduce the stigma associated with free school meals. The council believes in the value of school meals and has seen a big increase in uptake as a result of its actions. The future of school meals remains uncertain, as the Department for Education is undertaking a review of school food policy, causing concern among campaigners for school food.
According to Rees, there is currently a lack of answers on his end. He emphasizes that school food is a crucial component of education that falls within the realm of welfare. The available evidence lends support to the existing minimal standards, rendering any proposed alterations questionable. Rees asserts the belief that Department for Education officials are cognizant of the benefits associated with school food. Everyone involved in the education system, including instructors, students, and parents, hopes that Rees’s optimistic perspective is founded on fact.