School dinners - back on the menu

I am sure just the words 'school dinners' are conjuring up sights, sounds and smells in your head.

A child of the 70s or 80s and you will be recalling spotted dick, blancmange and semolina... ooh and maybe faggots in gravy.

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A child of the 90s and it would have been chips, chips and more chips with a side-order of donuts as Margaret 'not called the milk snatcher for nothing' Thatcher put school meals out to contract and it all became about price, or lack of it. 

A child of the noughties would have felt rather hard done by. It was out with the Twizzler and in with turkey wraps. Gone was the vending machine busting with pop & chocolate, kids had to make do with with a fruit smoothie.

It was a rocky road for all concerned, expanding waistlines and the ringing of the tills as kids splurged pocket money at break on a twix and a can of coke. School kitchens had been removed or made into teaching spaces. Dining halls were like cattle sheds - often noisy, messy and never anywhere to sit. Primary children were expected to learn knife & fork skills using a moulded plastic tray where the veg was in a separate compartment to the meat and quite often your custard was accidentally dripped on your chicken nugget. So much for feeding the brain.

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You will recall a young TV chef called Jamie Oliver rode in to town and gave school dinners a thumbs down. He had the ear of the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and a revolution was born. Following Jamie's programme, where for the first time parents realised what their precious little ones were actually eating and then immediately were enraged, school meals went through a massive transformation.

The School Food Trust was created, where I was proud to be media and campaigns manager for over four years, and changes were implemented. It was a tough and massive battle. An army of under-skilled cooks with no ammunition. No space to serve food, no time to eat as lunchtimes had shrunk and resistant children who didn't want to eat hummus and falafel. Along side this organisations like the Food For Life Partnership were addressing issues such as cookery skills and learning about food.

A change of government sees the apple cart being tipped upside down and Michael Gove announces a review of school meals, and bonfire of the quangos so it's off with the head of the School Food Trust. All with a vested interest shudder, but then see a glimmer of hope, as the review is to be run by Henry & John, the clever chaps behind LEON

Fast forward a year or so and I am asked to support the Food for Life Partnership and coordinate their press and communications response to the School Food Plan. I was delighted to be involved and am reassured that this isn't an attempt to 'restore' school food to a cash-cow of old. Despite the sensationalist headlines about banning packed lunches (not true) the plan is an honest and accurate review and realistic vision with do-able actions for organisations like Food for Life, LACA and Children's Food Trust to ensure school meals feed the brains and bodies of our young people.

Ofsted are to assess school food for the first time, cooking is on the curriculum with a focus away from cupcakes and lemon drizzle and back on savoury dishes, food standards are to stay and the head teacher has been put center stage to embed a love of food in school.

So school meals are back on the menu where they belong!