A moveable feast
Minestrone soup, corn bread and fruit kebabs: that's what Years 5 and 6 at Hampstead Norrey's CE primary in West Berkshire had for lunch in a bus parked near their school. And mouth-wateringly good it was - made all the better because the children had cooked it.
They carefully cut vegetables, tore herbs, broke eggs, grated cheese and threaded fruit on to kebab sticks before sitting down to a banquet. That afternoon, they went home with a carton of food they had prepared themselves.
It was an experience of cooking and eating brought to them by the RSA Cooking Bus, part of the Focus on Food Campaign. The "bus" - a huge, expandable pantechnicon which becomes a brightly coloured, well-equipped food classroom - visits schools and community venues to offer lessons in cooking to children and in-service training to teachers and classroom assistants.
At Hampstead Norrey's primary it was parked outside the community hall. From its wall-to-wall windows you could see the small village school, fields and pretty houses; but it can easily be stationed in an inner-city playground. The idea behind the venture is to highlight the importance of food education in schools.
"Most schools are really struggling to deliver practical food education," says Anita Cormac, director of Focus on Food. "But if they don't make food, children have little grounding to be able to make judgements about quality or nutritional value. We want to encourage more practical food work and would like to see the practical element of food education made compulsory in primary and secondary schools."
It's a point of view recently echoed by television chef Antony Worrall Thompson, president of the Campaign for @Sansboldfullrr = Real Food, when he called for cookery lessons to be made compulsory for all children aged under 11. "Cookery used to be taught to all children - including basic skills such as pastry, bread and soup-making and preparation of vegetables. Now they learn how to design a pizza or burger carton - skills which will be of little use if they are hungry," says Antony Worrall Thompson.
In the bus, the approach is definitely hands-on. Working in teams of four, children prepare a huge variety of vegetables and fruit, crack eggs, or make bread or pastry. Meanwhile, they learn about healthy eating - five daily portions of fruit and vegetables is the mantra - and to appreciate different cuisines and the quality of good food.
They smell the herbs, investigate texture - "Is this looking the same as yours, all glucky?" asks one pupil of her neighbour as she stirs the corn bread mixture - and watch carefully that they have the right amount of each ingredient. At the end they have a tasting of their efforts. The recipes used are child-proof, imaginative and multi-ethnic: Jamaican patties with a spicy vegetable filling; Caribbean red pepper salsa; samosas; Indian salads and Chinese spring rolls are among other recipes - staple fare in some parts of the UK, but thrillingly exotic, or perhaps strange, in others.
"Children can be very naive about fruit and vegetables," says Ann Kerry, one of the two teachers aboard the bus. She remembers how in one session none of the children could recognise a courgette or name any of the herbs used. And they had never eaten a sweet potato.
Vegetables certainly aren't lacking in the Cooking Bus's minestrone soup - spinach, courgettes and celery are added to the carrots and onions. It also contains borlotti and cannelini beans, garlic, basil, oregano and coriander. Freshly grated parmesan cheese is served on the side. It's not a dish they could easily make on their own, though they could take the recipe home and prepare it with help (they are given recipes).
But they probably could, with very little help, manage to make the corn bread and produce fruit kebabs, which involve only carefully cutting up an assortment of fruit, such as different-coloured melons, grapes and strawberries, and putting them on sticks to eat with family or friends, because eating in company is often best. "This is a social event," says Ann Kerry. "More than anything, we want to encourage them to enjoy food and to enjoy eating together." As more and more families eat round the television or separately in different parts of the house, the meal at the end of the session demonstrates the benefits of eating together, and is an important part of the Cooking Bus experience.
In some cases, it is obvious that the children of Hampstead Norrey's have rarely if ever eaten such a variety of food before. They approach it gingerly, and some don't finish a course. Others come back for seconds or even thirds. But there is a general atmosphere of fun and conviviality and they all at least try the food. "We are told that they eat things here they wouldn't eat at home," says Ann Kerry. Let's hope they get the habit.
To register for Focus on Food, ring 01422 383191 or e-mail linda@ design-dimension.co.uk. You then receive a range of free materials and can apply for a visit from the bus. The Cooking Bus is supported by Waitrose. For more information go to: www.waitrose.com/focusonfood.