Please sir, can I have some more

PUBLISHED: 12:20 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:28 20 February 2013

Tenbury Primary School

Tenbury Primary School

Forget concrete chips, stodgy pies, smelly cabbage and soggy semolina, Shropshire's schools are serving up brain food that's as delicious as it is healthy

Forget concrete chips, stodgy pies, smelly cabbage and soggy semolina, Shropshire's schools are serving up brain food that's as delicious as it is healthy


"In our nursery the children sit down at a properly laid table with two adults, say Grace and eat together. We have noted that they eat much bigger portions like this and take longer to eat than the children who eat canteen style " - Kevin Bryant, Head of St Laurence CE Primary school, Ludlow





Shropshire County Council's school meals service has become the first local authority caterer in the country to be awarded the Food for Life Silver Catering Mark by the Soil Association for using seasonal, local and organic ingredients in its primary school menus.
And just weeks after the British Food Fortnight organisers called for the public sector to enable local producers to share big local authority contracts, Shropshire has been hailed a 'Beacon of Excellence' for its procurement policy for school meals.
More than £2 billion is spent by the public sector annually, on food and catering for around one billion meals, but in the past it's been difficult for small producers to win these contracts; either they cannot guarantee continuity of produce or they don't have the network to cover large areas.
By adopting a creative and innovative approach when putting food contracts out to tender, Shropshire's Shire Services has enabled small local businesses to compete against the giants, and, the result is school meals of which Jamie Oliver would be proud and a boost for the local economy.
New school meals' contracts won locally include two local butchers, two local fruit and vegetable suppliers, a link with an organic milk producer and a contract with Belton cheese of Whitchurch.
"I've never worked in a school where there has been so much feedback about school meals," says Kevin Bryant, Head of St Laurence CE Primary school in Ludlow.
"I used to be a Schools' Inspector in Hereford, so I see the bigger picture. Many schools got rid of their kitchens so, when the Government included school meals in the indicators, it skewed the statistics and thus provided an additional encouragement to us to provide dinners."
The new improved dinners have prompted something of a revival in traditional eating, and in Kevin's school they introduce it at an early age.
"In our nursery the children sit down at a properly laid table with two adults, say Grace and eat together. We have noted that they eat much bigger portions like this and take longer to eat than the children who eat canteen style."
"I wouldn't want to give children what I wouldn't give my own," says Sue Mapp, School Cook at Bitterley Primary.
"It has taken time to get the children on board with healthy food since the days of Turkey Twizzlers, but now they really love the meals.
We use a lot of spinach at this time of the year, especially in the curry, we grate carrots on the pizza, lots of pears and apples in the puddings and we often have one of our special menus. Today it's local Hereford roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, with local free range eggs from Oswestry, cheese from Whitchurch and Muller yoghurts which are made in the county.
"Frankly I am appalled when I see what the small number of children with packed lunches, bring along. The cost is higher and the quality is often very poor. From time to time the children get the chance to vote on their favourite menu and it nearly always includes a roast and two vegetables."
The new policy has been good for the local economy too. The £200,000 schools' fruit and vegetable contract, has been shared, by Chesters of Wem in Shropshire, and W.B.Grinnall in Worcestershire and there's a pretty happy butcher in Ludlow, one of two to benefit directly.
Andrew Francis has a traditional butchery and began by tendering to supply schools in a small area around his business, but now they have asked him to take on all of South Shropshire.
"I am a former farmer and my daughter goes to one of the local schools, so I think it's really important that our children have good food," he says.
"We supply Hereford beef from a farm in Woofferton, lamb from around Knighton, free range pork slaughtered in Leintwardine... it's all traceable and quality is assured."
The budget they have to spend isn't large - a school meal costs around £1.80 these days, with around 10 per cent being supplied free, but for Andrew the local schools' contract is well worthwhile for his business.
"My busiest times in the shop are Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays, all times when the schools are closed, and schools tend to take the cheaper cuts of meat while the restaurants and local customers favour the more expensive ones, so the combination makes my business completely sustainable."
In the past three years Andrew's team has grown from five to 11 employees as a direct result of the new contract.
"We are a progressive county," says Bill Campbell from Shire Services, "and we decided that if we split the area we could use smaller producers who could bid for all or part of a contract according to their resources."
"It meant modifying specific criteria and spending time encouraging local producers to believe that they had a chance of winning and wouldn't be overwhelmed by the process, but it worked, and we now supply first class school meals made with fresh local ingredients.
"The take-up rate of our meals is consistently up from 47 per cent in some schools to over 70 per cent or 80 per cent in others, so we know parents and children are with us. And we are developing partnerships with local businesses, supporting local jobs and, in response to local concerns over battery chickens, we recently awarded a contract for free range eggs within the county, developing our network still further."
Today Shire Services provides meals to 162 schools in Shropshire daily, as well as providing catering services to sixth form colleges, a secondary school in Colwyn Bay, one in Telford and two independent schools.
In Worcestershire, where there is no school meals' service, Shire Services supplies 35 schools.
David Howatson, from Government Office West Midlands says: "The groundbreaking work being undertaken in the West Midlands, to open up public sector contracts, is part of the overall Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative which is seeking to re-establish and improve the links the public sector and producers. Working with a range of public sector organisations, including the NHS, local authorities, the Prison Service, MoD and other partners we are hoping to make the links still stronger and more effective.
Shropshire is a 'Beacon of Excellence' nationally because there has been a real desire there to make it happen."
Jane Bishop Head at Bitterley Primary says: "We were miles ahead of Jamie Oliver with this; in fact he had a detrimental effect in this area because he created unnecessary anxiety with parents. Our cook is Cordon Bleu-trained and we have achieved almost 80 per cent take up. Ofsted said our meals were the best they had seen. Now, we have taken it one stage further by using some of our discretionary funding to subsidise additional fruit and vegetables. I know for a fact that if the children had to vote on the staff they'd most like to keep, I'd be out first and the cook last!"

Photographs available including:
Bitterley Primary School, Wem Primary School and Andrew Francis Butcher of Ludlow

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