By Alistair McIntyre, Head of Catering Services at Scottish Borders Council.
When I was a young (and not so young) boy I loved school dinners…but I can understand why some of my friends didn’t! The mashed potatoes were texturally challenging and often greyer than a rainy Aberdeen afternoon! The beef required some amount of chewing to get it to the stage of being able to swallow it and the pink custard defied logic!
But despite these culinary failings the majority of kids in both my primary and secondary schools still ate it, and paid for it! But that was then.
Why nowadays when every P1-3 in Scotland can get a lovely, balanced school meal for FREE are we not achieving a 100% take up?
I can say that the food is excellent; the mashed potatoes may not be as much fun or multi-coloured, but they are smooth and delicious. The beef is generally Scotch and tender and thank goodness that we have eradicated pink custard in favour of fruit pots and delicious home baking! Yes, home baking, which is a perfect accompaniment to a well-balanced meal.
As I have travelled around Scotland visiting different areas I am amazed at how far have we come with flavour profiles and textures and variety and a plethora of different ethnic foods available, not to mention gluten free, lactose free, sugar free, high protein, low fat, high carb, low carb and meat free options; we are now SO diverse we can cope with any requirements.
If there is a more heart-warming sight than seeing a youngster enjoying lovely food then it can only be them learning about the food they are eating.
Just lately I have been in Busby Primary where the young people learn about, cook and eat the food and then serve it as well, and in Melrose Primary where they have installed a prep kitchen in the school and are teaching the youngsters some cooking techniques.
I have seen these young people grow, dig and cook the veggies and try certain fruits that would have had my old school cook, or even my first cookery teacher, running a mile.
International School School Meals Day is a celebration of food, of the sheer enjoyment of it and, more importantly, how it fuels the body for learning, physical activity and good health.
In South Ayrshire there is a lot going on the day, including: French, Spanish and Italian menus – one school is doing a menu with a selection of dishes from eight different countries! – and children are being encouraged to bring in family recipes, with one chosen to feature on the menu that day. On this really important day they are promoting UNCRC Article 24 “that every child has the right to good food and water” and Article 7 “that every child has the right to a name and nationality”.
In our high schools in the Borders on 9 March we will be celebrating very different countries and cultures from Ethiopia to South America to Asia and incorporating the staples that the young people in these countries will be having as their school meal.
One example is from Galashiels Academy where the Ethiopian menu for the day is: Key Wat – Spicy Beef Stew, Misir Wot – red Lentil and carrot one pot slow cooked Ethiopian Chicken and Lentil Stew and all served with home-made Injera bread to mop up the lovely flavours.
Is this type of activity unusual in Scottishs schools? Absolutely not.
My experiences of the types of food being served are changing almost daily to meet the young gourmets that we have coming through our schools, whether it’s food being made from scratch perhaps using the great ‘world’ products from Unilever or bought in from one of our superb suppliers such as Green Gourmet reacting to innovation and customer feedback.
We live in exciting and changing times with many opportunities to educate young palates and to make food fun and different, and show them that all over the world people are eating different types of foods for different reason, but that in all cases – Better Eating means Better Learning!
Get involved and if you want to learn more about changing your school meals or persuading your school cook to try something different, check out the school meals web site, www.scottishschoolmeals.co.uk or www.assistfm.com or the Unilever World Food Program through Jason.McKeon@unilever.com or contact Alistair at firstname.lastname@example.org.