By Alistair McIntyre, Head of Catering Services at Scottish Borders Council.
It seems very strange to be sending this from San Antonio in Texas about school meals but I have just seen one breakfast service in Martin Elementary school in the Northern district that serves 30,000 breakfasts every day…..that’s the district, not the school! So, 355 pupils all eating a healthy breakfast of cereals, fruit and bread.
It took nearly 24 hours and three flights to get here but hopefully over the next few days I will learn a lot more about how America is tackling the obesity crisis in their schools.
The time I arrived at the school was 6:45 and it was dark and a little rainy! San Antonio is huge, no high rise apartments and a spread of over 40 miles! Speaking to my host he said it’s been a bad winter as two evenings have reached as low as 20 degrees! I did say he should try Glasgow in July if he thinks that’s bad!
The place was already teeming with youngsters, breakfast was at 7 and school started at 8.00 although some elementary schools start at 7.45. It’s all very strange to see it all happening so early but seeing it all running so smoothly, kids eating and staff from all over the school working in harmony….it worked!
They are starting their first holiday feeding next week during spring break to try and do as some of our authorities are and make sure these kids are looked after for a bit longer! Whatever we believe about the benefits of breakfast service in schools, this district swears by it that the pupils are more alert, attentive and ready than before this all started.
San Antonio is the 7th most populous city in the United States and has a very large Spanish speaking community and from what I have seen it really is quite diverse in its population. Everyone I met with, however, had one thing in common, they were passionate…….about feeding their pupils the best way they can……about their attitude and the schools admin staff (which included several vice principals and directors) were equally passionate about making the experience work for these young people.
Martin Elementary is a CEP (Community Eligible Provision) which means every child gets a free meal. Something very special happened as I was presented with two posters made by the children from the head start group which are a group of disadvantaged youngsters (and young!) and one from pupils with learning difficulties and apparently this never happens! I was introduced to Northside Nick (the chimp) who makes guest appearances to encourage the pupils to eat their fruit and he was much more popular than me and I thought I was well received…..but Nick was something else!
Then I then went to Brennan High school for lunch and was given four entrees and a bunch of sides as they wanted me to try everything so I had pizza, BBQ beef sloppy joes, chicken pieces and chilli with nachos! Well I am in Texas so BBQ and chilli were local dishes but in all honesty all were delicious. They do not have salt in any schools and all of their bread products are made with wholemeal flour, even the tortillas.
Brennan has 3,000 pupils, two sittings, six service lines and was another super school! Was it what I was expecting?……..no…….can I understand why there are so many obesity issues in the states?….no, not if this is a typical example. The philosophy of my host and his team is the same as I have said many times, that if a child is eating with them it’s better for them than down the high street and yes …..they have the same open door policy as us.
What I witnessed were great staff doing a great job providing great food and driven by a desire to keep improving…….a bit like being at home in more ways than one!….just warmer and with more BBQ.