"It's school dinner, Jim, but not as you know it…" Out with overprocessed boil-in-a-bag gunk in the shape of a spaceship. In with local, organic, fresh food and cooks who know how to prepare it. Catherine Sleep meets Jeanette Orrey, champion of healthy school dinners.

The food that children eat in schools has been under close scrutiny in recent years. Governments in a number of countries have implemented a variety of measures to improve the food available to schoolchildren both in school canteens and in vending machines. These measures range from arguably draconian bans on all food of minimal nutritional value for sale anywhere on the school premises to the half-hearted replacement of chocolate bars in vending machines with marginally less unhealthy cereal bars.

Resistance to change comes from several quarters. Head teachers fear a loss of income from food sales, a revenue stream upon which they rely to channel into projects elsewhere in the school. Pupils take time to adjust to menu changes, often shunning healthier options at first. Neither can schools count on robust parental support for a switch to healthier fare; parents may not have nutritious diets themselves, or they may respond to their child's dismay at the changes to school dinner by sending them to school with unhealthy packed lunches or, where older children are involved, even money to spend at the local takeaway.

Vending machines pushed out

Several countries have been addressing the issue of unhealthy school dinners of late. Last month a new law came into force in France removing some 8,000 vending machines selling chocolate, sweets and carbonated soft drinks from schools. Viewed as the one of the most extreme initiatives by any government yet in the war against obesity, the ban did not just strip vending machines of unhealthy food and drink, but kicked the machines out of school altogether. All machines, all schools.

The Great School Dinner Debate is very much at the top of the news agenda in the UK too. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver did some sterling work earlier this year, bringing the nation's attention to the parlous state of school dinners with his gripping television programme Jamie's School Dinners and the Feed Me Better campaign. By the end of the series, 270,000 people had signed Oliver's petition to replace the Turkey Twizzler, burger and chips on offer in UK primary schools with salads, fruit and better quality meat. The government didn't take long to find an extra £280m (US$489m) to tackle the problem. At the Labour Party conference in Blackpool this autumn education secretary Ruth Kelly announced a national audit of school dinners, which has already begun, along with a ban on junk food in vending machines.

Enter the dinner lady

Jeanette Orrey

Photography: Fabio de Paola

Only the phenomenonally out-of-touch can have missed these latest developments and the excitement they have prompted. But for years now, pressure has been growing to improve the food we offer children in schools. Nobody has worked harder than Jeanette Orrey, a school dinner lady at St. Peter's Primary School, Nottinghamshire for 14 years. Technically she worked as a 'catering manager', but Orrey has no truck with such highfalutin terms. "You never heard a pupil talk about a unit manager, did you?" Orrey tells just-food. "We're dinner ladies, let's keep it simple."

Keeping things simple is something in which Orrey believes passionately. Five years ago, rebelling against the poor quality of centrally supplied ingredients, she chose to bring catering at her school back in-house, sourcing as much local, organic and Fairtrade produce as possible - and all on a very tight budget. Her headmaster, kitchen staff and pupils took some persuading, but Orrey persisted and saw school dinner take-up soar. One day she went into school at five o'clock in the morning to peel two sacks of potatoes so that she could persuade the headmaster how much tastier fresh potatoes were than the reconstituted, chlorine-packed mush she was obliged to work with for lack of a commercial rumbler to peel potatoes. Needless to say he relented and a second-hand rumbler was soon installed.

Would you eat it yourself?

Orrey pared back the range of meals on offer to three or four freshly cooked mains with two puddings, and encourages more timorous pupils to try just a teaspoonful first time before progressing to more substantial portions. Too much choice, she believes, makes it harder for children to eat well as they stick to what they know. Another of her homilies is that she won't dish up to children anything she wouldn't happily eat herself. Cheesy feet, potato portholes or pork hippos will find no place in Orrey's school canteen. Not that her food is in any way unsympathetic to the tastes of children. Indeed, she happily prepares chicken nuggets, but they will be made from fresh, and preferably local and/or organic chicken. A year after introducing her own ideas into the St. Peter's school canteen, she had increased the number of children taking school meals from 70 to 200.

Orrey has oft been referred to as an unsung hero, but this is no longer the case. She may not have the profile of Jamie Oliver, but Orrey's work was rewarded with the Observer Food Award for 'Person who has done the most for the food and drink industry' as long ago as 2003. She also won the highly prestigious Glenfiddich Independent Spirit Award this year, awarded at the judges' discretion in recognition of a piece of work, or an individual, or a campaign thought to have made an outstanding contribution towards widening the understanding and appreciation of food and drink in Britain.

Food for Life

Gratifying as such recognition must be, for Orrey the battle continues. She works as school meals policy advisor to the Soil Association and travels around the country talking about what has been achieved at St. Peter's and encouraging other school dinner ladies to implement the Soil Association's Food For Life targets. These include:

  • At least 75% of all foods consumed made from unprocessed ingredients;
  • At least 50% of meal ingredients sourced from the local region;
  • At least 30% of the food served from certified organic sources.

To get anywhere near these ambitious targets catering staff must grapple with financial and practical difficulties; it is not just a battle for hearts and minds. The menu plan devised by Orrey and incorporated within the Food for Life project foresees parents spending £1.75 per child, per school dinner. This is more than most school dinners cost at the moment; but then, as Orrey tells just-food, "Look at what people spend on a cup of coffee these days. For this £1.75 their child gets a nutritious, high-quality hot meal."

Skills shortage

Since for years the key skill required to work in school catering has been the ability to open a pack with a pair of scissors and reheat the contents, many kitchen staff lack basic cooking skills. To remedy this sorry state of affairs, Orrey has teamed up with Ashlyns Organic Farm in Essex and opened a training kitchen that runs two-day intensive courses for school catering staff covering everything from knife skills and cooking through to food safety, kitchen management, menu design and how to 'market' change to pupils, parents and head teachers.

Having had the good fortune to inspect the training kitchen and sample a lunch produced by course participants, just-food is pleased to confirm that the standard of both is extremely high.

Change will be slow, but it is coming nevertheless. Radical measures are required, and there will be no shortage of demands on that £280m the government has earmarked. Let's not forget that 13% of schools have no kitchen in which to prepare school dinners, healthy or otherwise. Where food is prepared on the premises, staff often feel excluded from the rest of the school, where the 'real work' of education goes on. To get buy-in from children, they need to be taught about the difference between good food and bad. Farm visits, proper cookery lessons and pleasant canteens are essential elements of the drive to improve school meal uptake.

Much work lies ahead, but there's a real will to drive improvement now. In ten years' time we will probably all be happy for our children to have school dinners. With any luck, the children will even be happy to eat them.

Catherine wrote about her visit to Ashlyns Organic farm to meet Jeanette Orrey in her blog.

Learn more about the ever-changing children's food market in just-food's Global market review of children's modern eating trends - forecasts to 2010. This exclusive report offers discussion and analysis on key market issues including new product development, health and nutrition, confectionery trends, school dinners, marketing strategies and industry forecasts.