She also says she’s seen a real change in the way that the staff relate to their work. “When stuff comes in vacuum packed, you’re very removed from the raw ingredients and I think you lose some of the pleasure you get from serving food that you’ve cooked from scratch yourself. Now, you can see they take pride in what they’re doing, that they have a real love for the food that they’re making for the children.”
Chefs in Schools aren’t the only ones doing great work in this area. Food consultancy Eagle Catering Solutions and charities such as School Food Matters help support schools to bring catering in-house, while other schools have independently made inspirational changes to their canteens.
Greenside Primary in Hammersmith boasts vegetarian menus cooked in-house that have featured on the TV show Jamie’s Meat-Free Meals and Washingborough Academy in Lincoln has instigated food education strategies so admired, they’re being used as a case study by the Department of Health on their Childhood Obesity Plan.
So if there are only upsides, why aren’t more schools doing it?
“Sometimes I think it’s easier to stick with the status quo,” says Barrett. “Often you might be part of a group of schools, or a local authority that all use the same external catering company, so maybe you feel that that gives you some sort of protection. But also it’s just something you often don’t have to think about when there are so many other demands on your time. It’s just a payment that you make to one of those big companies and then you don’t have to think about it.”
She also points out that while in the long term it’s more financially viable, “it is a bit of an HR task to employ catering staff directly, and sometimes there might be outlay in terms of equipment too”.
None of that seems like it should be a barrier to entry, but for too many people who have the power to effect these simple, yet seismic changes, it is. And if the head doesn’t do it, nobody else will, as Prue Leith, another of the Chefs in Schools patrons tells me.
“The tragedy of school food is that it depends on the attitude of the head teacher. If they are not prepared to put time and resources into kitchens and teaching a child about food and diet it doesn’t happen,” she says.
Maybe if there was more pressure on schools to be accountable for what they’re serving to our children this would change, but despite the importance of healthy school meals being widely acknowledged, there’s a huge amount of buck-passing.
“Everyone in politics realises just how important nutrition is for youngsters in schools, not just in terms of school performance and long-term health, but because it’s a critical part of tackling the obesity epidemic. Yet even though this is recognised, for the Secretary of State for Education, it’s just never on the top 20 list of things to do,” says Dimbleby.