Q and A with Jackie Schneider (UK’s Mrs. Q)

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

Specific Objectives:

  • 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!

Since 2005 there have been huge improvements with school food in England. Following reforms in the 1980s which had seen minimum nutritional standards abolished, many kitchens closed, a move to a self service snack service and a switch away from freshly prepared food to reheating processed food school food deteriorated.
Many campaigners complained and tried hard to draw attention to the poor quality food we were serving our children. The Soil Association and campaigning school cook Jeanette Orrey worked tirelessly. in 2005 Jeanette had been able to bring this matter to the attention of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver who imemediately begun investigating. Jamie made a sensational TV series called “Jamies School Dinners” which shone a spotlight on the appalling state of school food. It got the attention of parents, the press and the politicians. It allowed my own campaigning group – merton parents for Better Food in Schools to get national coverage for our locally based campaign.
The government moved quickly. They set up a task force and included high profile campaigners such as Jeanette Orrey. This group recommended the establishment of basic nutritional standards to become law. It removed fizzy drinks, confectionery and daily junk food from all school menus. It placed severe restrictions on the amount of fried foods schools could serve and insisted every meal must include fruit and vegetables. A public body called The School Food Trust was set up to administer and regulate. Since 2009 I have been appointed as a board member and I continue to act as a trustee.
Although there was initial reluctance from many children who missed their daily dose of junk but new improved food has become popular. Teachers have reported better behaviour and concentration in lessons in the afternoon. parents reported that children were becoming less fussy at home and more willing to try new fruit and vegetables. Many schools begun introducing cooking clubs and school gardens. public health experts have become excited aand seen this as a real way to get behaviour change. interest grew in running free school dinner schemes.
In 2011 there was a change of government and a bitter row broke out about the state of the economy. The new coalition government has argued that the debt of the national state is so huge that the country can no longer afford to support such a large welfare state. The new health minister in a speech to the British Medical Association declared Jamie Olivers school meal revolution to have “failed” as the number of students eating school meals had fallen. In fact he was wrong – the number of students eating the new improved meals is steadlily if slowly rising as annual take up figures show. There have been reports of leaked documents claiming that the School Food Trust is to be closed down. A number of trials set up to investigate the impact of giving away free school meals have been shut down.
Everyone is now anxiously awaiting the result of the comprehensive spending review at the end of this October. The government will be announcing their spending plans and we will see if they will continue the support for school meals or if as has been leaked the School Food Trust will be closed down.
A number of school food campaigners, ( The Soil Association, the Children’s Food Campaign and Merton Parents for Better food in School) have got together to set up a petition. We are determined not to go back to the bad old days of appalling school food. No matter how tough times are we cant afford to give our children poor quality junk.
It has been a real roller coaster for me – ” it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” as Dickens famously said. I have seen the most sensational improvements in food and educational professionals start to get the difference improving the food makes. I have also seen ignorant politicians unwilling to look beyond a few vested interests. Whatever happens at the spending review there will be no going back. Good school food is now embedded in Merton schools and I will to shout long and hard if I see attempts by schools to cut corners and save a few pennies. there is still terrific press interest in this and the majority of parents are keen to see good quality school food remain.
Like you I will continue to eat a school meal once a week and will put the pictures up on my blog.
Here’s how to find Jackie:

Jackie’s School Food Blog
Jackie on Twitter
Children’s Food Trust
Children’s Food on Twitter

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7 thoughts on “Q and A with Jackie Schneider (UK’s Mrs. Q)

  1. So glad you posted this interview with Jackie. She and I have been pals in cyberspace for many years since I discoverd her Merton Parents for Better School Food in a google search. It was the UK equivalent of Better School Food here in the US!

    Jackie and I will finally get to meet face to face next week at Terra Madre in Turin Italy. Terra Madre is a world wide food event sponsored by Slow Food. Over 150 countries will be sending farmers, food producers, educators and activists.

    BTW, here in the US, Slow Food in Schools is a great program that is part of Slow Food USA. Check it out!

  2. Thanks for this. It is a great look at how other countries are dealing with our same issues.

    In 1986 I spent my first semester of first rade liviing in London and I attended public school while I was there. School lunches were altogether different there. Meals were hot and more like home cooking. There was always a veggie even if some of them were strange to me (stewed tomatoes as a aisde dish??) I remember food running out, though I never remember going hungry. I was 6, much of the details escape me. But I noticed a difference upon returning to the states and getting the more processed American meals in my hometown public school.

    I hope that parents can make a difference. I worry that we are so regulated from a feredal standpoint in the US that individual parents cannot force change in their local environments. However I am glad to see that grass roots movements have been effective.

    Thanks for posting this!

  3. Jackie is based in the next borough (district) to me (I'm in Wandsworth) and she does wonderful work. I'm sure that it has been influencing other schools in neighbouring districts. We still have a rigidity in some of the food planning. At one point we weren't allowed to use butter or any kind of spread in sandwiches. You try eating a grated cheese sandwich with no spread to hold it together…!!

    However, everything is cooked and prepared on site so we have got that part right.

    My personal desire is for our school to employ our own catering staff and not be tied to a catering company. That way we can cater to our many religious requirements by serving only Halal meat and improve the veggie content in things such as the sauce on a pizza. I have no problem with pizza as a regular item on the menu if it is freshly made and plenty of veg are hidden in the sauce.

    Sorry – when I say "we" and "our", I mean that I'm Vice Chair of our Governing Body so feel quite passionately about "my" primary (elementary) school.

  4. Hello!
    I found your blog randomly. I think it's amazing what you are doing! I mean, pitting up with school dinners for a year?! How can you. The photo's you are showing they look absolutely foul. Apart from the veggies! Everything else looks greasy and not very appetising. It's weird how you guys have them served in containers! waste of packaging?!

    In the UK before the healthy school meals started, we had dinners served in trays with separate compartments. It minimized waste.

    I'm so glad the government has changed the health regulations for school dinners over here. They look edible now! All thanks to the lovely Jamie Oliver.

    I heard he is over there trying to get American schools to eat healthily! Personally he is brave and is setting an amazing example. More parents need to be wary on what their kids eat! Processed oily rubbish just won't do!

    Loving your blog! Will be sure to follow and keep up with you!



  5. Thanks for the comments! I think Jackie is so interesting because she cares so much and is continuing to fight for kids' health and nutrition.

  6. Thanks for the info on how things are "across the pond". It sounded like there were less country-wide regulations that had to be followed. Maybe that's just how it came across. It just seems that here there is so much red tape, you can't even figure out who can make the decisions to change things.

    I hope things keep going well and budget cuts don't change things back. How sad to think politicians are saying "sorry your health and well-being are not worth the money". And everyone wonders why people have so many health problems.

    If only the money spent to lobby for the food manufacturers could go to providing healthy food for kids…

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