It must have been a bitter pill for the government to swallow earlier this year when research from King's College demonstrated the failure of its school meals initiative.
Launched in 2001, National Nutritional Standards for school meals were intended to redress some of the problems caused by the chips, fizz and buns mentality that had become the order of the day in canteens across the country following the withdrawal of nutritional guidelines 20 years before. But in their report, King's College researchers were unequivocal: "There appears to have been no improvement in the profile of nutrient intake from school meals following the introduction of the National Nutritional Standards in 2001," they said.
The research was undertaken on behalf of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Department for Education and Skills. From an analysis of 79 secondary schools they demonstrated there is a wide variation in healthy food preparation. Many schools follow healthy cooking practices, like frying in vegetable oil, but only 15% restrict access to table salt and 99% fry their chips rather than use oven-cooked -- probably because the latter are more expensive. Certainly costs play a major part in the debate, especially now that so few school meals are subsidised.
For its part, the FSA has launched an action plan with a deadline of this autumn to improve pupils' diet. By December it will have guidelines on school vending machines and by March next year it will publish best practice advice on flagging meals high in salt, sugar and fat, as well as nutritional guidelines for the food industry to encourage it to reduce levels of fat, sugar and salt in products aimed at kids.
A White Paper on public health, which will also cover school meals, is due out later this year. The government took a wide range of soundings, which can be viewed on the Department of Health website.
Manufacturers are already responding to the drive to cut salt and fat and make school meals more nutritious as well as bowing to parental demand for fewer additives. Leading foodservice supplier Brakes is one of many reducing the salt/sodium content of meals in some cases by 30%, with more cuts to follow. But few manufacturers will admit how much salt they routinely use. The arguments for including salt are well known: it extends the shelf-life and accentuates the flavour of food; many foods have naturally occurring salt; food without added salt can seem tasteless to palates that are accustomed to it, especially in the case of children; taking out additives will increase manufacturers' costs in a sector where pricing is already under pressure.
Kevin McKay, national vice chairman of the Local Authority Caterers' Association, and group manager for catering and cleaning services for Nottinghamshire County Council, says there's more to healthy eating than how many times schools serve chips. He says healthy foods are often less tempting to children and so produce lower commercial returns.
"It is about making the healthier products as attractive as the non-healthy ones and no caterer can do it alone. You need the help in schools, through school councils and lessons. Then you will be unlikely to see such a dip in income."
The current situation in schools is not simply the result of manufacturers pushing fast food: it is often a challenge for schools to feed all the pupils in the short time available. Schools have solved this with a 'grab and go' catering operation where the emphasis is on burger-type snacks. To revert to sitting down together for a balanced meal needs space, plates, knives and forks. "To encourage 11 and 12-year-olds into that process is going to be difficult," says McKay.
All these things will cost in the short-term. Food manufacturers will need to work with schools and they will need investment, he says. But the upshot is schools will get healthier, more attentive pupils and caterers will benefit from economies of scale. They will be literally growing their customers.
One of the most successful school meals services reaching for the healthy eating goal has been HC3S, which began as the county meals service for Hampshire. It serves 556 school sites in the county and neighbouring west Berkshire, dealing with 337 cooks. It has a turnover of £15m and charges £1.50 for a two-course meal.
HC3S uses nutritional guidelines for school meals developed by the Caroline Walker Trust, which is dedicated to the improvement of public health through good food. Working with dieticians, HC3S aims to achieve a balance between home-cooked and frozen food, bearing in mind that skilled cooks cost more than buying in frozen products. But its diligence is paying off with the operation regularly winning new contracts from the competition.
Evelyn Cook, its food development officer, explains that she meets food manufacturers every six weeks to discuss potential supplies: "I ask them what are the additives and what is the specification so that we have an analysis available of all the products on our menu."
She is now in a position to tell her suppliers that she will not use products containing monosodium glutamate (MSG). "They tell me I am the only person asking for it to be taken out. I tell them we want to be ahead of the game, so we insist." She still faces a gravy challenge -- without MSG it is a more time-consuming product to mix -- but she is working on it.
Cook's efforts are supported by suppliers such as Pure Organics (see box) which works with her to produce food children will eat. Other manufacturers are pitching with niche products, like offering breast fillet in their cooked chicken meals rather than less palatable cuts.
HC3S has a website for pupils, parents and teachers at the national school nutrition portal http://www.myschoollunch.co.uk and its team undertakes talks in school to raise awareness of healthy eating by showing pupils how to balance their diet.
Cook's colleague, Amanda Frost, head of catering services, points out that some manufacturers, like Green Gourmet, are being proactive in dealing with the issue of healthy school meals by adding the beneficial Omega 3 oil to their fish products while others are adding it to orange juice.
"We need food manufacturers to keep their products within costs and to the best quality they can while being aware of the issues that beset their clients," she says.
"We want people to say that if a child eats a school meal it is balanced and good so it is part of the solution to child obesity, not part of the problem, and we would like manufacturers to also be part of the solution." FM
Purely for the sake of the kids
Pauline and Gary Stiles had problems managing the health of their three children, particularly one with autism.
Some doctors advised them to remove as many additives and colourings from their diet as possible, but it proved so difficult that the couple decided to found Pure Organics, a company specialising in gluten-free, dairy-free, low-salt and low-fat products.
As well as HC3S, their client base includes supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury for which they produce own-label.
Pauline Stiles welcomes the spotlight that is now shining on school meals providers.
"It puts the responsibility back on us to take some accountability for what is happening to children," she says.
Now that the beef scare is over, the company's organic beefburgers are attracting a lot of interest from schools.
"People tell us that when cooking other beefburger and sausage products they are losing half of them down the drain as fat," she says.
Another of the company's key themes is to supplement children's diets with hidden vegetables in products like chipolatas. Pure Organics, which has a turnover of £15m, is now branching into ready meals with a national nursery group that wants 3,500 meals a day.
Pure Organics is keen to see non-traditional ingredients brought into school diets, like pumpkin and sunflower seeds, brown rice and lentils.