When I was told that Jackie Schneider (Jackie’s School Food Blog and Twitter) was the British equivalent of Mrs Q (Jackie was eating school lunch with the kids too), I knew I had to contact her and learn her story. She eagerly replied to my Q and A and then gave me an update of what’s happening now that the new and improved meals that her school has been enjoying for years are under the threat of being axed due to budget cuts. (Note: in the UK, school lunches are called “school dinners.”)
Q and A:
1. Tell me a little about yourself
I am a mother of 3 boys. I teach in a primary school and I also work for a small charity, “The Children’s Food Campaign”
2. What grade do you teach?
I am currently teaching year 3 and year 4 classes
3. How did you become interested in school food?
I was outraged at the appalling quality of food that children at my school were getting. Many fellow teachers and my head teacher privately agreed with my criticism but there was a feeling that change was not possible. I complained using the correct channels but there were never any improvements. I found a number of others from neighbouring schools who also were complaining. Wewere all being told that everyone else was happy. The most common complaints were that the food often ran out with kids having paid in advance they were left hungry. The food differed from what was on the menu. I was not uncommon for there to be no vegetables, no salad, no fruit for days on end. Food was often burnt or cold. The quality of the food was very low – reconstituted meat, low quality fish fingers etc. There was an over reliance on breaded,shaped processed foods and oven chips. You can see a selection of the meals on our website.
4. What happened at your school?
We held a meeting for parents and staff of all 42 schools in our district. It was a very passionate meeting with staff and governors desperate to share tales of horrific meals that they felt no choild should be offered. We vowed to set up a parent group to campaign for better school food in EVERY school in our district. the local authority was horrified and completely dismissed our concerns claiming that there was no problem with school food. We set out to collect the evidence to prove them wrong. we collected photos and testimonies from staff. we got huge publicity and that council soon admitted they were wrong and asked our help in fixing the school meal service.
5. Were there critics of reform?
Some council staff were sceptical that kids would eat fruit or salad.
6. How did the kids respond?
Brilliantly! Some of them took part in the protests and public meetings. They were keen to talk to press. They greeted the new improved food with great enthusiasm
7. What happened with your job?
My job was fine. Initially I had been a little concerned that I would be vulnerable but this was not the case. I had a lot of support from parents, school governors and some head teachers. I tried very hard to behave responsibly and not to criticise individuals but the system
8. What is school food like today at your school?
Unrecognisable from the bad old days! There is always salad, fruit and and several veggies available. Have a look at photos on my blog for photographic evidence! We forced local government to builda new kitchen at each school, kicked out the old catering company and re wrote the specifications for the food. We raised the improtance of food with all of the head teachers and encouraged all schools to look at teaching cookery and food growing skills. We also promoted links with local farms. We have made less progress with secondary schools but we have recently helped choose a new catering company and are still working hard to improve the menus and dining room environments.
9. What are your recommendations for concerned parents and teachers?
Do something – don’t put up with it! Find a couple of parents or staff who share your concerns and draw up some practical improvements you can campaign for. We drew up a set of aims and objectives that characterised what we expected from our school food service (see below):
Aim — To ensure that school students are offered only good quality, healthy, appealing food, prepared and cooked from fresh ingredients on site in all our schools, served in a pleasant atmosphere
- Merton Council takes on the process of a robust management of change to guarantee that the schools are provided and continue to be provided with healthy fresh food.
- A healthy balanced diet is offered at all schools.
- All cooking and food preparation to be done on site.
- Eating lunch is a pleasant experience for childrenPromotion of healthy food and eating habits becomes an integral part of the education offered in our schools.
- The Council sets up an effective system for monitoring school dinners, to ensure that the standards above are met and continue to be met.
- To agree a target date by which all of the above will be achieved and clear, specific measurable milestones (no more than 6 months apart) on the path to these ultimate goals.
We got head of council, local public health, head teachers etc to sign up then we set about to make it a reality. My advice – you are NOT alone. Contact other parent/campaigners for advice/ideas. Evidence is critical to change policy. Take photos, collect testimonials, interview kids on video if possible. Present current school food to politicians and challenge them to eat it!