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We don't know about you but our memories of school meals conjure up uninspiring trays of beige - greasy chicken burgers, hash browns and thick wedges of cake with gloopy custard. If there was fresh veg, it didn't feature heavily and it certainly wasn't organic.
But from September children at Harrington Hill and Sir Thomas Abney primary schools in Hackney will be tucking into meals prepared with fresh fruit and veg, sourced as locally and sustainably as possible, thanks to a new partnership with our wholesaler the Better Food Shed and local chef James Taylor from Chefs in Schools.
"It’s been one of my dreams to be able to use affordable, locally farmed organic produce in my primary schools and thanks to Better Food Shed & Growing Communities, it’s finally happening," said James.
Danny Fisher, Shed project lead, said: "Ever since we launched the Shed in 2019, it's been our ambition to reach a wider demographic and improve access to healthy food for people of all ages and from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Getting our produce into schools has always been part of that plan - but it hasn't been easy!"
As anyone who has followed Jamie Oliver's campaigns to get healthier food into schools knows, the current school catering system isn't exactly set up in a way that nurtures the bodies and minds of our young people, as Danny explains: "The current system relies on giant caterers with long and opaque food supply chains, which only serve to feed the pockets of shareholders rather than giving back to the local community or sustaining a local food network as we do. With financial pressures and inflation squeezing catering budgets, price is a barrier too."
There's also been a shift towards highly processed and pre-packaged foods. One study of over 3,000 primary and secondary schoolchildren found that ultra-processed foods accounted for 82% of calories in packed lunches and 64% in school meals. It's no wonder, then, that we're also facing a childhood obesity crisis.
The deluge of processed food into school canteens is something James is actively trying to change: "I’ve been working on transforming the school kitchens I oversee from kitchens that serve mostly frozen ingredients, unhealthy menus and nutrient-poor food to kitchens that serve fresh, healthy, diverse, tasty, colourful food made with great ingredients.
"I serve two vegetarian meals a week and I’m moving away from typical meals such as pasta and cheese-heavy dishes to more pulses and vegetables."
Despite the challenges, Danny says there has been a lot of enthusiasm for the project. He says one of the major perks of collaborating with schools is being able to change people's expectations of what the UK can produce for itself. "It's a challenge for fancy restaurants to source UK produce so you can imagine the difficulty with schools doing it. But we hope we're able to educate young people on what we can produce here seasonally." As those on our veg scheme can testify - it's not all potatoes and turnips!
James has adapted his menu to work with the seasons: "I’ve made the wording on my menus a bit more flexible to allow for the changes in seasonal vegetables," said James. "Saying ‘seasonal greens’, ‘local fruit crumble’, ‘bean salad’ or ‘roasted roots’ on the menu gives me the option of changing the ingredients depending on availability."
With additional funding from the Bridging the Gap campaign (which is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund), Danny hopes the BFS will be able to launch an educational programme alongside its fresh produce deliveries in the new year, so more young people understand where their food comes from and who grows it. "That's one of the unique things about what we do," he adds. "We know where our veg comes from, we know our farmers and we can tell that story."
The Peas Please Report (PDF, 2021) published by the Food Foundation described vegetable consumption among young children as "bleak", with one-third (29%) of children aged 5–10 years eating less than one portion of veg a day. Consumption isn’t much higher among teenagers either – with 23% of 11–16-year-olds eating less than one portion of veg a day. With a typical meal prepared by chef James Taylor consisting of several different types of veg, it won't be long before these Hackney school children are munching through their 5 or even 10 a day.
"My long-term plan is to serve 100% organic food in schools. I imagine a future where all schools can be flexible with the seasonal produce on offer when making menus," said James. "It’s going to take a consistent effort of educating children about seasonal, good quality ingredients, a lot of encouragement to keep trying new foods and persisting with healthy cooking in schools."
The Better Food Shed has had a busy summer. As well as supplying veg box schemes across London (including our own, of course), it collaborated with Barking and Dagenham Council on its Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) programme. To date, the programme has fed around 2,000 families struggling with the cost of living crisis. This year the Shed supplied hampers of fresh organic produce across Barking and Dagenham alongside easy climate-friendly recipes supplied by our friends at Made in Hackney. Local resident Kimberly Chadwick tried the recipes with her young family. She said "The hamper was so helpful in this difficult and expensive time of year. This was unexpected and much needed."
It's just another of the many ways we are improving food access in Hackney and beyond.
Email the Shed if you'd like to ask about wholesale opportunities. We aren't currently supplying shops or restaurants but we're particularly keen to hear from schools and community-focused networks.