Saturday, October 06, 2007

BRITISH STUDENTS SPURN NUTRITIOUS MEALS: More than 400,000 students have stopped eating school lunches since an effort to serve healthful fare.

Officials vow not to give up.

By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 4, 2007 -- LONDON -- Two years ago, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver expressed horror at the Turkey Twizzlers being served in Britain's school cafeterias and equated many school lunches with a four-letter word for the ultimate byproduct of all meals. He vowed to help lead students down the road to healthful eating.

The Pied Piper, it turns out, he was not. In the wake of an Oliver-inspired national program to provide more nutritious food, students have gravitated away from the cafeteria in a majority of the schools surveyed, according to a government report released Wednesday.

The findings back up earlier reports that more than 400,000 children had stopped eating school lunches since the program debuted in September 2006.

Recalcitrant food service workers and angry "meat pie mums" are chortling with I-told-you-sos. But school officials blamed the exodus on poor marketing, minimal menu choices and a lack of consultation with pupils and parents. They signaled their determination to win reluctant junk food fans over to the merits of salad bars and baked chicken.

The call for more nutritious school lunches has been a mantra across much of the developed world, but Britain made the effort mandatory last year. State schools are required to serve meals heavy in fruits, vegetables and oily fish. Candy, potato chips and popcorn are forbidden. Old standards such as chicken nuggets and processed burgers are served no more than twice a month.

Next year, school lunches will have to meet a series of detailed nutritional standards.

School officials say the ban on snack foods on campus is driving many students into nearby supermarkets for contraband.

"I can no longer sell blueberry muffins, oatmeal cakes or chocolate chip cookies at break," complained Norman Hoare, head teacher at St. George's School in Harpenden, north of London. "The children now come to school in the morning, and many of them have gone to the supermarket to buy chocolate and crisps, which I know are heavier in the very ingredients which we are supposed to be removing."

The opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which obtained the lunch statistics last month, has called for a more flexible approach to implementing the new standards, saying schools otherwise face rising costs and a continuing flow of students out of the cafeterias.

"We've seen a huge decline, particularly in the secondary schools. It is in those schools where people can vote with their feet," said David Laws, the party's education spokesman. "I think it's a classic case of a government trying to intervene for all the best reasons, and ending up actually making the situation worse."

Oliver did a series of television shows in 2005 trying to show that he could cook a healthful meal for children within the school budget -- per child, about the same price as a bag of potato chips. Referring to chicken nuggets as filled with "unspeakable substances" and processed foods as "chemically enhanced junk" -- the more polite terms he used -- Oliver helped bring about the new regulations.

Parents and teachers generally responded positively. However, caterers warned that the more labor-intensive meals would drive up prices, and a group of mothers in South Yorkshire made headlines, pushing deli sandwiches and potato chips through a school fence into the hands of apparently desperate children.

In its report released Wednesday, the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills says the number of pupils eating school meals had fallen in 19 of 27 schools surveyed. A report in April from the Better Regulation Commission found the falloff in some schools as high as 25%.

The latest report says schools could lure students back by involving them in developing menus, exploring a wider range of foods, ending long lines and making school dining areas more attractive.

And the government's approach has succeeded in some schools.

St. Peter's primary school in Nottinghamshire shifted toward more nutritious meals before it was required and has seen its sales grow to 80%of the student body, significantly higher than before.

The school started by moving to fresh, local-source produce and meat, then phased in organic foods. When snack time eventually was limited to fruit, milk and water, students didn't object.

"We were able to make it part of the school's culture. It's part of the students' education, it's part of their upbringing," said head teacher David Maddison.

Birley Community Primary School in South Yorkshire at first saw a decline in those choosing school meals, but the number has been rising. The school kitchen, overseen by chef Sally Ann Brigham, has its own herb garden, serves meat from a local butcher and fresh fruits and vegetables from a local provider. Desserts were replaced by fruit.

The meals have proved so popular that the kitchen has opened a take-out service for teachers and parents, and Brigham has a waiting list for her cooking class for parents.

"It's not a quick process. I have to give a child a meat and potato pie 10 times before they start saying, 'That's good,' " Brigham said.

"It's just about perseverance. You have to totally reeducate the children's palate."


This has much relevance in LAUSD, which has the most nutritious big city school lunch program in the US. No transfats, all whole grain, no sodas or junk food, most cholesterol left behind …yet faces a challenge left over from earlier times when the food wasn't so wholesome: Not enough time to serve it in.and inadequate facilities to serve it from!

- smf | In the interest of full disclosure I serve on the LAUSD Café Improvement Committee

The British Media on this story

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