A young Scottish blogger is influencing school dinners for the better
Schoolgirl Martha Payne’s blog gave the world an insight into what a Scottish school dinner looks and tastes like, and sparked a national - and international - outcry over the seemingly paltry portions and unappetising fare.
Four years on from the introduction of strict nutritional guidelines to Scottish schools, can more be done to improve them?
Martha’s blog, Never-Seconds, started out as a writing exercise but then her dad, David, tweeted about the project and the site received 25,000 hits overnight. Since then the number of people looking at the blog has rocketed, with the figure now standing at more than 7 million; at one point the Paynes were receiving 1,000 emails an hour from supporters, says Mr Payne.
Food is important to the Payne family. Martha’s mother, Rebecca, is a GP and Mr Payne, who describes himself as a “house husband”, manages their smallholding in Argyll. The family does not own a television and a popular outing is to the slaughterhouse on Mull, when they get the ferry from Oban and - after the animals have been left to their fate - spend the day playing on the beach.
“I don’t put money on the table; I put good food on the table,” says Mr Payne.
He admits that he was “shocked” when Martha, who enters P6 at Lochgilphead Primary next month, uploaded her first school dinner picture. But what concerned him even more was that none of his children - neither Martha nor her two siblings Joe and Polly - batted an eyelid.
“I accept the food meets the guidelines, but I just don’t think it’s attractive,” he says.
Martha’s main complaint is that school meals don’t fill her up. Early on in the blog, she comments on a picture of a slice of pizza accompanied by a measly smattering of sweetcorn: “The pizza in the first pic was alright but I’d have enjoyed more than 1 croquet. I’m a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can’t do it on 1 croquette.”
Argyll and Bute Council has been quick to point out that children can have as much bread and salad with their meals as they want.
The council also says it had received no complaints about its school dinners until Mr Payne contacted them after NeverSeconds was set up. His retort is that it is tough to complain about what you don’t usually see.
Part of the appeal of NeverSeconds is that it gives a glimpse into a world many of us left some time ago, and it offers something else that is relatively rare - the child’s perspective.
The blog’s appeal lies in its innocence, Mr Payne believes. While he controls the password for the email inbox and sits with Martha as she uses the computer, the thoughts are her own, he says.
“Martha is a talker and I wince sometimes at the things she wants to say like ‘sucking jelly through (her) teeth’ but she writes with the innocence of a nine-year-old and I think in part that’s what people have warmed to. She sees food in a different way to us.”
Now Martha has stopped blogging and has handed control of NeverSeconds over to children around the world, who guest-blog about their school meals for a week at a time.
The leader of Argyll and Bute Council, Roddy McCuish, has promised Martha that her blog will have a “strong and lasting influence” on school meals and the early indications are that he is right.
Chef Nick Nairn, who met the schoolgirl at his school meals summit last month, is considering “doing a Martha” and setting up a website where children from across Scotland can upload pictures of their school meals. This would be a means of assessing what is going on across the country, he argues. Meanwhile, a suggestion to come out of the summit was that every school have its own Martha Payne blogging about the food and driving up standards, he says.
Mr Nairn’s preferred option, however, is that the Scottish government set up an Active Food programme based on the existing Active Schools model, which employs coordinators to get children active in and out of school. The Active Food coordinators would teach pupils how to cook, show them how to grow vegetables, get them involved in school kitchens and run after- school cooking clubs that could involve parents.
At its National Food and Drink conference in March, the government announced a 2 million food education investment package, which builds on a previous package of about 600,000 of pilot projects.
Mr Nairn’s children do not eat the school meals offered by Stirling Council - his daughter describes them as “slimy and soggy”, he says.
“I’m fairly sure that boxes are being ticked in terms of basic provision of nutrients, but what seems to be on the plate most often isn’t doing much for Scottish food heritage or teaching children about what is a good, tasty, appetising, well-balanced meal. One huge challenge,” he stresses, “is to move away from what is considered to be children’s food: burgers, pizza, chips and fish fingers. We need to educate our children to eat a healthier selection of food.”
Stirling Council offered Mr Nairn the chance to collaborate and help improve its meals and Scottish ministers have offered to meet with him. “Hopefully we’ll get things improving,” he says.
But the councils that have been named and shamed - Stirling and Argyll and Bute - seem unlikely to be the worst offenders.
Argyll and Bute has been heavily criticised, having to endure headlines in the tabloid press like “Time to fire the dinner ladies” which, it says, devastated staff. Martha, however, rates many of her school meals highly - on her blog a chicken curry scores 10/10; shepherd’s pie 9/10 and meatballs 8/10 - and the council boasts the second-highest uptake of primary school meals of any Scottish mainland authority, with almost two- thirds of pupils (64.8 per cent) opting to eat them. Midlothian boasts the highest uptake on the mainland, with 65.2 per cent of primary pupils eating school dinners.
Argyll and Bute has also shown itself keen to go the extra mile to improve what it offers. On the Isle of Bute the council runs a local food initiative, with raw meat, eggs, cheese and milk all being supplied to schools by local producers. This project has resulted in the school meal uptake at Rothesay Academy increasing from 291 meals per day in 2007 to 513 in 2010, and the council is keen to roll it out elsewhere.
Stirling Council, meanwhile, is one of three local authorities to have been awarded the Soil Association Scotland’s Food for Life catering mark, which means that the 2,000 meals served every weekday in its primaries are freshly prepared, using more locally produced, seasonal, healthy and organic food.
The other two authorities are Highland, which like Stirling received the bronze award, and East Ayrshire which boasts a gold award.
The catering mark is one way Scotland can drive up the quality of its school meals, argues Elise Downham, the Soil Association Scotland’s Food for Life catering officer.
Until now, Miss Downham has been single-handedly supporting and advising caterers interested in going for the quality mark but, thanks to a six- fold increase in its funding - the bulk of which comes from the Scottish government - it will in future be able to afford a team.
At the moment only 5 per cent of school meals in Scotland are accredited, says Miss Downham, but she is hopeful that over the next three years a further eight local authorities will achieve at least a bronze award.
Having the quality mark does not necessarily mean a high uptake of school meals, however. In East Ayrshire, the council has invested in quality catering staff and does not buy ready-made products. Almost a third of the ingredients it uses are organic and 70 per cent of products are sourced locally - its milk comes from Clyde Organics in Liberton, its cheese from the Dunlop Dairy, and its fruit and vegetables from A&A Spittal in Auchinleck. In some primaries, uptake of school meals is over 90 per cent, but overall less than half of primary pupils (46.5 per cent) buy school lunch.
Miss Downham believes marketing is the problem. “How many parents know the council is doing all this work to transform its school meals?” she asks.
Spreading the word is another area where she hopes Soil Association Scotland may be able to help. “We talk about transforming food culture but if we want to do that, we have to promote the benefits,” she says.
The Scottish council with the smallest proportion of primary pupils taking school meals is East Dunbartonshire (43.2 per cent) and in Edinburgh less than a fifth of secondary pupils (18.2 per cent) take school dinner.
Edinburgh’s education convener, Paul Godzik, says uptake in primary is improving, thanks to more varied menus and the introduction of new products. Secondary is more of a challenge, he admits, because of the high number of easily accessible takeaways and cafes in the capital.
Competition from the high street and burger vans is something all schools grapple with. This makes it harder to improve school meals in secondary, because uptake can be low and unreliable. But sometimes the lack of joined-up thinking at council level is stark - in Stirling, a McDonald’s drive-thru is being planned for a site near St Modan’s High.
Two authorities - Glasgow and East Renfrewshire - have taken action to move unhealthy competition away from school gates by creating exclusion zones for mobile food vendors. Nevertheless the issue of static shops and take-aways remains.
Research by Highland Council into the food purchased by pupils outside school for lunch found that the most common choices included chips, crisps, pies and chocolate, with many choosing only sweets or chips.
David Rex, a specialist dietician with NHS Highland, says: “Few pupils purchase anything that could be described as a meal, with the possible exception of a minority who purchase a sandwich.”
Six Highland schools are “troubled by mobile food vendors”, he states. In secondaries where staff can keep pupils in at lunchtime, school meal uptake is up to four times higher.
Over half of Glasgow’s secondaries have stay-on-site policies for S1s. In conjunction with the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, the council analysed pupils’ out-of-school purchases last year and found the most popular items were chips on rolls or with curry sauce, gravy or cheese. Sausage rolls, pizza, pot noodles, beef burgers and doner kebabs were also common, with many pupils buying sugary drinks, chocolate, crisps and sweets.
Researchers analysed the nutritional content of 50 popular items. With the exception of lentil soup and a roll that contained lettuce, they had no vegetables or salad.
The next step to improve children’s diets will be tackling the environment around schools, says Wendy Wrieden, a lecturer in nutrition at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, and a member of the expert working group that drafted the nutritional requirements for food and drink in Scottish schools.
She calls for the Scottish government to fund a thorough evaluation of what children are eating in school, now that the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Act 2007 has been in force for several years.
“I’d also like to know if this is making a difference to their overall diet,” she adds.
Her suspicion is that little will have changed. She is currently examining Scottish food purchase data, and while Scots report that they are eating more fruit and vegetables, there has only been a small increase in the amount purchased between 2001 and 2009, she says. At that rate, it will be several decades before we reach the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, she predicts.
“I have a feeling if children are not getting their chips or sweets in school, they will just get them somewhere else. Plus, if you look over the course of a year, the school meal is a small proportion of what they eat.”
Dr Wrieden stresses, however, that there has been a huge improvement in Scottish school meals over the past decade. It is vital that schools continue to deliver a consistent message, she says, and practise what they preach - or teach.
GOOD PRACTICE IN LOCAL AUTHORITIES
Primary pupils in 20 East Renfrewshire schools experience a restaurant- style dinner service, where they are served their meals at designated tables as they nibble on bread and crudities.
A TESS survey of local authorities has thrown up a wealth of innovative working when it comes to school meals.
In Perth and Kinross there is no need for a Martha Payne-style school meals blogger, as the council does the job itself, posting daily photos of meals online for parents.
Martha’s dad complains that school meals are a mystery to parents but, in Midlothian, catering services staff attend parents’ evenings to provide information and samples, and in North Ayrshire and Dundee P1 parents get the chance to sample a school lunch.
Dundee City Council also employs health and well-being assistants in its primaries to support teachers in delivering cookery lessons and healthy- eating messages.
In Angus, primary pupils are able to pre-order their meals, guaranteeing them their first choice, and in Falkirk four secondaries operate an electronic pre-ordering system to ease queues.
A project in Glasgow awards secondary pupils points for healthy eating, which are redeemed for rewards including cinema tickets and iPods. North Lanarkshire runs a similar scheme called Web-Bite.
A Veginvasion resource pack was launched last year in East Lothian to encourage uptake of vegetables, in response to research which showed that, as a nation, we are eating more fruit but still need to up our vegetable intake. The authority has also commissioned a series of photographs of local farmers with their produce, to illustrate the journey from field to plate.
In a West Dunbartonshire school, the catering manager has run work experience for all P7 pupils, enabling each one to spend a week in the kitchen cooking, baking and learning about nutrition.
Several authorities, including North Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire, have started up their own burger vans - minus the burgers - in a bid to offer pupils an alternative to sit-down, hot meals.
WHAT THE TUCK
MSPs were accused of “killing off” tuck shops and found the only thing pupils wanted to talk to them about, when they visited schools, was “the chocolate ban”. But the legislation that removed fizzy drinks and chocolate from Scottish schools, beginning with primaries in August 2008, and moving on to secondaries the following year, is widely regarded as the final step in a journey that began in 2002.
Scottish school meals began diminishing in quality in the 1980s, when councils were required to subject the school meal service to competition. This took the focus off health and diet, and placed it on cost.
In May 2001, the health minister of the day, Susan Deacon, said: “We cannot force-feed our youngsters, make them eat cucumber instead of Crunchies, or chain them to their school dining table to stop them going to the chip shop. What we can do is enable them to make healthy choices”.
So in 2002, a government report, Hungry for Success, set out to put the emphasis back on healthy eating by establishing standards for the nutritional content of school meals, as well as improving their presentation and eliminating any stigma attached to free meals.
- Original print headline: Tough to swallow: the truths in a child’s blog