Ollie McFadden describes improvements at Sutton Grammar School for Boys.

Campaign

Healthy eating has been a big issue recently for schools. By the end of 2005 Jamie Oliver’s TV and political campaign to improve school dinners achieved an important goal by getting the government to pledge:

  • £280m more on school meals
  • £60m on educating parents and teachers about nutrition.

This budget meets Jamie’s demand to spend ‘half a quid on a kid’ for school meals. Jamie Oliver is a celebrity chef and he has generated media attention, particularly about the terrible turkey twizzler. But before Jamie, Prue Leith, the cookery writer was working for better school meals. In 2005 she was made chair of the School Food Trust and works closely with the DfES to provide healthy meals in schools. I think she’s a bit of an unsung hero!

Changes at my school

I am a Year 8 student at Sutton Grammar School for Boys. When I joined the school in Year 7 I was shocked that there was no canteen, only a take-away fast-food outlet called the ‘snack shack’. The old canteen had been demolished and a new one was being built. In the gap year the boys just sat around the playground eating mostly unhealthy food. Now the new canteen is complete. The contrast between it and the snack shack is marked.

Quality of food

Snack shack: The healthiest snack available as far as I could see was a sandwich such as ham and cheese or chicken tikka. But many boys chose unhealthy options like burgers, jumbo hot dogs, doughnuts, sweets, chocolate, chocolate chip muffins and cookies. There was also a vending machine for crisps, sweets and chocolate.

New canteen menu:

Monday Pasta margarita with garlic and herb bread wedge or pancake filled with spicy beef and baked herb potatoes. Chocolate sultan sponge or fresh fruit.
Tuesday Boiled egg and potato Aussie pie or chicken tikka masala with fluffy pilau rice. Mixed fruit pie or fresh fruit.
Wednesday Vegetarian chilli con carne with boiled rice or roasted pork. Toffee apple crumble or fresh fruit.
Thursday Quorn and vegetable layer pie or Vienna steak burger with Cajun jacket wedges. Pineapple pudding or fresh fruit.
Friday Caribbean vegetable curry with fluffy pilau rice or Russian fish pie. Banana pudding or fresh fruit.

The new menu is far healthier. It offers fresh food and all meals are served with a selection of seasonal vegetables. Boys can choose assorted paninis, sandwiches with healthy fillings and fruit if they prefer. There are never any salt or unhealthy additives on the tables and the vending machine has been removed.

Calories and nutrition

Some typical values for food from the snack shack are:

  • burger (6oz cooked) 620 calories
  • with chips and pickles 890 calories
  • Mars bar 240 calories
  • Pepsi (345ml) 130 calories.

It is difficult to compare this with the calories in a typical new canteen meal. But nutritionally the canteen meals appear to do better. The canteen is run by Scolarest and they report ‘every school meal we provide meets government food-based standards [2006]… 60% of our contracts will meet the 2008 nutrient standards and exceed the guidelines on fresh fruit, vegetables and meat and portion size.’ Scolarest is one of the largest school meal providing companies in the UK. It works for 1,300 primary schools and 400 secondary schools.

Cost

Snack shack: just taking the healthiest option, a snack shack sandwich was priced on average £2.50. This comes to £12.50 a week spent on lunch at school and around £452.50 for school lunches over the school year.

New canteen: the combination meal, including pudding, costs £1.85. A week of combination meals would cost £9.25 and over the school year it would cost around £396.90. This is £55.60 cheaper for a more balanced, complete meal compared with the snack shack sandwich.

What the students think

I asked eight boys at school what they thought about school meals. Here are some of their responses.

When asked if they preferred the new school meals to what was available before all the boys answered that they did. The reasons included: nicer, more filling, more variety and more hot meals. Favourite meals from the new canteen included: roasted pork, pasta, pizza and curry. These compared with the boys’ typical meals from the snack shack such as: jumbo hotdogs, burgers, sandwiches.

When asked if they ate fruit and vegetables in the new canteen meals some did and some did not. I also asked them what they thought would encourage more people to eat healthily: most said cheaper meals and one said even healthier meals.

When asked whether they brought unhealthy food into school their answers ranged from ‘no’ to ‘yes’, and what was brought in included sweets, chocolates, biscuits, cakes and doughnuts.

I also asked if they thought the school encourages a healthy lifestyle. All of them said ‘yes’ and gave examples such as: PE and games lessons, sports clubs, and biology lessons, which teach us about nutrition and how the body works.

Improvement

I think Sutton Grammar School has made significant improvements in encouraging healthy eating. The new canteen provides relatively cheap, healthy and balanced meals. Unhealthy snacks and sweets are no longer available on the school grounds. Sutton Grammar also supports healthy eating in the curriculum through PE lessons, which also teach about exercise and healthy lifestyles.

Sutton Grammar School is trying to gain Healthy School status. But maybe there is an area for improvement. More students need to be encouraged to eat healthily and use the canteen, and not buy unhealthy snacks in the high street. My straw poll of students suggests that making meals even cheaper would help. I think sending home more information about the canteen would also be useful.

Ollie McFadden, age 12, is a student at Sutton Grammar School for Boys www.suttongrammar.sutton.sch.uk

First published in Learning for Life, February 2007

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