The Truth About School Dinners: Spam Smash and Mash

I met Stephanie Wood at a Rude Health healthy eating morning a while ago, and was so inspired by what she’s created. In essence, the company that she founded in 2007 does what it says on the tin. Their mission is to ensure that every child enjoys fresh sustainable food at school and understands where their food comes from. What we feed our children is so important and being a parent I want to do everything I can to help. It often starts with education and learning about the importance of healthy food both at home and at school, and if we know that our children are getting healthy balanced meals at school, it’s a great place to start. We’ve come a long way since spam smash and mash and we’ve asked Stephanie to tell us a bit more about school food matters and what we can do to help. 

We find out why school food matters so much…

  • Take us back to the beginning – why did you start this huge campaign, what’s it all about?

In 2005, the family Wood returned to London after living in Sydney. My children were born in Australia and went to a little Montessori nursery school on Bondi Beach where, at lunchtime, they harvested fresh organic vegetables to make into delicious snacks to share with their friends. They were then dropped into our local primary school in SW London and got a nasty shock! I knew we were in trouble when the school manager showed us around. “Sorry about the smell” she said, “That’ll be lunch!”.

I worked with other parents to transform the food served at our primary school and then met Zac Goldsmith, at the time parliamentary candidate for Richmond Park, and he encouraged me to take the lessons learned at my school and campaign to transform school food across the whole borough. School Food Matters was born!

But it wasn’t just school dinners we needed to worry about. In 2007 when I set up the charity, I heard a head teacher declare that children at his primary school couldn’t recognize an onion – we’re not talking an aubergine here – just a simple onion. There was clearly a job to be done!

To cut a very long story short, after four years of campaigning, mobilizing some pretty impressive parent power, the school meals service in Richmond was relaunched in September 2011. Our new caterer, ISS Education, delivers fresh sustainable food, cooked on site from scratch from high-welfare, high quality ingredients.

And guess what – the meal price came down! Four years on the meal price is still lower than the bad old days of the frozen ready-meals and we’re getting a Gold Food for Life Catering Mark menu. Naturally the meal numbers have doubled and in some schools have leapt from 26% take-up to over 85%. That’s a lot of happy children.

The success of the Richmond campaign caught the attention of Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, authors of the School Food Plan so we got the opportunity to share lessons learned in Richmond and influence school food policy across England.

  • Why is cooking in schools so important to you?

I learned very quickly that there was a whole generation of children out there that hadn’t seen their parents cook from scratch … hence the onion episode! Their parents had been sold the ‘convenience myth’ of ready meals and microwaves and the vital life skill of cooking fresh, healthy food had, for many, been completely lost. Despite our love of TV chefs and recipe books, in the UK we were consuming 50% of all the ready-meals in Europe! With this trend comes a confidence gap – parents may want to prepare delicious food for their children but lack the confidence to do so.

But children will always have a go – they’re not scared of making a messy mistake in the kitchen so this is where we need to focus our attentions. If we can cook with confidence again, we can make healthier choices and that’s not only important for our happiness and well-being, but super-important for a generation that costs the NHS billions treating completely avoidable diet-related diseases!

  • Tell us a bit about your “growing ideas”?

To excite children about food we need to tell them the story behind the food that ends up on their plates. SFM specializes in devising, developing and delivering hands-on exciting food education projects that teach children about the journey from seed to supermarket so that they don’t grow up thinking that carrots just magically appear sent by the food fairies! All our projects are curriculum friendly and inspiring teachers use the opportunity to teach maths, art, English, science … the list is endless.

  • Can you tell us a bit about the charity and the membership you offer?

School Food Matters was founded in 2007. Our mission is to ensure that every child enjoys fresh sustainable food at school and understands where their food comes from. We’re partly funded by trusts and foundations that support our campaigning, advocacy and policy development and partly by project partners who recruit us to deliver food education in schools. We will only work with partners that share our mission and for the past four years have enjoyed a successful relationship with Borough Market and Whole Foods Market. We also enthusiastically receive donations from anyone who likes what we do!

Schools can access our projects through our Membership. For £250 a year schools will receive our support to help improve school meals, be first in line for our wonderful food education projects and get the opportunity to host a Cooking or Kitchen Garden session with a top chef.

  • Can you tell us a little bit about your projects and campaigns?

Projects-wise, we’re enjoying year 4 of our Young Marketeers programme with Borough Market. Primary school children are taught to grow veg from seed to sell at Borough Market to raise money for FareShare. This year we’re piloting a new winter sale for secondary school students who will learn the art of bread making then design and prepare a soup to sell at the market in February.

We’re in our third year with Whole Foods Market delivering the Schools to Market programme to 36 schools across the UK who learn to grow, harvest, cook and prepare jams, chutneys and sauces to sell at their local Whole Food Store. Market Day 2015 is on Wednesday 23 September so please come along and support some very enterprising young people!

  • You have some amazing celebrity chefs such as Tom Aikens endorsing the project; tell us how they get involved?

Tom came to us in 2009 and wanted to help. Together we came up with the idea of Cooking Ideas when a celebrity chef visits a school to cook with the children. Tom’s worked in some pretty challenging kitchens for us … often working from a trestle table in the school hall and running back and forth to the staff room to use an old stove!

Thomasina Miers, Paul Merrett from The Victoria and Lucy Boyd from Petersham Nurseries have all come on board to deliver Kitchen Garden sessions using produce grown in school garden to create tasty dishes – quite a challenge, particularly when all you’ve got to work with is Rainbow Chard and Jerusalem Artichokes!

  • Do you think it’s important to get the parents on board with healthy eating?

Absolutely! But our eyes are on the next generation who may well end up teaching their parents to cook!

  • What’s a typical meal in one of your schools?

My favourite day to visit a school is Wednesday when they serve a roast. Free range pork, chicken or turkey served with seasonal fresh veg with organic bread followed by organic yoghurt with seasonal fruit. Not bad eh? School meals in the LB Richmond meet the very exacting Food for Life Catering Mark Gold standards, so no nasties hiding on those plates.

  • What’s your favourite family recipe?

My children would say “Mummy’s Special Chicken”. Chicken thighs marinated in olive oil, soy sauce, garlic, ginger and a little honey then baked in the oven until the skin’s nice and crispy. I serve them with steamed rice and Pak Choi.

  • How would you sum yourself up in one sentence?

Optimistic, enthusiastic, never daunted and always looking for an opportunity to make life a little more enjoyable.

By Stephanie Wood, founder & director of School Food Matters

About The Author

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