COOKING UP FREE SCHOOL MEALS
Primary school pupils aged four to seven are from this term entitled to a free hot meal every lunchtime. JOANNE ROWNEY finds out who will benefit from the government policy, how it came about and whether our schools ready to take on this additional pressu
THERE is no such thing as a free lunch, or so the old saying says. But in the case of the latest government initiative it appears to prove the adage wrong.
Primary school pupils aged seven and under are being served a hot meal at no cost to their parents as part of a national campaign to get children eating healthier.
The government stumped up £1billion to pay for the scheme, and schools across the UK have been preparing since as early as last winter to meet the new need.
About £150million was made available to get kitchen and dining facilities ready, as many schools had none.
An additional £22.5m was set aside to help the smaller schools.
In Bucks the £1.3m grant was ‘not enough’ to set up a sufficient number of hubs and satellites in time for the start of the new term.
When the scheme was announced 66 of 167 eligible schools had no facilities and the county council confirmed 48 cannot yet fulfil the request.
Butlers Court School, in Wattleton Road, Beaconsfield was one the county had to help to build an area to serve hot meals.
The hall had hot plates installed and an eating area built.
It is catered for by a hub kitchen at nearby Beaconsfield High School, where food is cooked and then delivered to several schools.
Last year, during our Food For Thought campaign to highlight the benefits of a hot meal, headteacher Jeanette Marshall aired her reservations about the scheme.
She said: “I understand the need for a hot meal, but now a large part of my day is spent arranging staff for this and making sure we are sorted for the next day.
“It means I am tied up with the school meals rather than other school duties.
“We can cope and manage that but planning wise it takes a lot of time.
“The children have seen the benefit eating together and by having a hot meal, but it’s just the cost to the school in terms of time.
“We will see as it develops.”
The aim is to have the remaining schools serving hot meals by October.
Little Spring, in Chesham, was one unable to make the change, as its kitchen is not big enough.
Office manager Annie Frite said: “It has been a difficult transition. Our old supplier has stopped providing for us and the new one can only provide cold meals at the moment.
“We have done our best but it is going to be a struggle, it is early days.
“We don’t know when we will be able to have hot food yet.”
Twenty schools opted to find their own solution, despite the council creating a ‘super hub’, with the capacity to provide 5,000 meals a day. It is due to be ready by half-term.
The aim is for it to provide some of the remaining schools’ hot meals, and eventually to use it as a central cooking school, offering lessons for parents and children as well as food hygiene courses.
St Joseph’s Catholic Primary, in Chalfont St Peter, already provides such lessons and serves food to seven other schools and provides another with cold lunches.
The school’s head chef Paul Jefferys said: “Having hot meals is a good thing, we make sure they are nutritious and [pupils] have four options [to choose from].”
A typical offering will include some sort of meat platter, salad, main meal and vegetarian option.
At the moment the cooking team, which has taken on new staff, is using a marquee for storage as the amount of work and food they produce has increased from 900 meals to about 1,100.
The school caters for Chalfont St Giles Junior and Infant Schools, Chenies School, St Mary’s in Farnham Royal and St Mary’s in Amersham, Our Ladies School, Gerrards Cross CofE School, and the Denham Green E-ACT Academy.
The school is extending the kitchen area by pushing into storage space. Work will be done hopefully in half-term.
“We were planning this last year,” Mr Jefferys said.
“You had to, because of the size of the change.
“We have a marquee outside as there just wasn’t enough room to cater for all the schools we needed to.
“It’s more for storage and loading.
“We got some new equipment too. We do need more support though.”
He added: “With the new workload it is more factory-like, we have a routine to get it all done.
“We dealt with 120 kilos of meat today, from our local supplier, that’s a lot!”
Mr Jefferys said he hopes as schools settle in to the new scheme there will be more room for creativity and getting the children involved.
For now it appears for chefs, headteachers and parents are happy to see their children getting a free meal, but for Bucks at least it will be a bit longer before the full benefit is felt.
WORK TO DO: St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School head chef Paul Jefferys
TUCK IN: Brooke Jackson (left), six, and Allistair King, seven, eat at Prestwood Infant School