Writing in the Independent on Sunday, food writer Hattie Ellis looks at initiatives to get children more interested in food and cooking and says while investment is crucial, it is not just about money…
With a fifth of young children now entering the education system overweight or obese, rising to one in three 10-year-olds, the Government says it wants to get to grips with food education. From September 2014, the word “cooking” is set to re-enter the curriculum, decades after home- economics classrooms were converted into computer or design and technology suites, as lessons about food and cooking become compulsory for secondary-school children in England for the first time. Meanwhile, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, of the Leon chain, are this year announcing a School Food Plan for how to get kids eating better.
But there are concerns that good intentions will not be backed by cash. Furthermore, the latest Children’s Food Trust survey shows that fewer than half the UK’s pupils eat school dinners, making it harder to influence diet. Moreover, will practical cooking lessons be too much bother to do well and end up being merely ticked off by poorly trained staff?
One school that has taken up the challenge magnificently is Charlton Manor Primary School. A short distance from the gleaming towers of finance in Canary Wharf, it is a world apart, with more than half its children receiving free school meals. Yet around 80 per cent opt for school dinners – an indication of their quality.
Headteacher Tim Baker believes it is not enough to put in a few hours’ lesson time on “healthy eating”: good food has to be part of the whole school, from the 7am breakfast club onwards. He regards food education as a life skill up there with literacy and numeracy. This starts with eating well. “All the junk, microwave and fast foods taste very much the same and I don’t think they test children’s tastebuds enough,” he says. “They get used to bland food and little texture. Start adding spices and textures and kids can think, ‘I haven’t got words to describe this so I’m going to say I don’t like it.'”
Celebration and eating together are part of the learning. On the day I visit, a Rainforest Café is in full swing, the kids serving their parents with their food among jungle noises and paper tropical foliage. Day-to-day school meals are eaten on proper plates rather than the standard plastic flight-trays where pudding and custard are slopped next to the baked beans in order to save time and money.
Crucially, food education at Charlton Manor is most of all about doing: growing, gathering and cooking. Each year-group has an allotment in the school garden and the school has a plot in a nearby urban farm. A bee club tends three hives and they use eggs from the school’s chickens. The custom-built teaching kitchen is equipped with child-height halogen hobs that are cool unless covered with a pan. A chef visits the school every month, each child cooks at least six times a term and next year Baker is employing a full-time chef to help the teachers bring proper cooking into different parts of the curriculum.
But how do you inspire older teens? Step forward Root Camp, a new enterprise that gets 15- to 21-year-olds to cook together. “School is increasingly a pressured and rather rigid environment,” says founder Cassia Kidron. “I want to do something that isn’t so regimented and is about learning through experience, not lecturing.”
The project has started with five-day residential courses costing £640 a teen in Devon, and Fforest, a beautiful eco-camp in west Wales. Around half the places are sponsored by Ocado, giving a good social mix. As well as keeping its core base in camps, a workshop will go around schools and combine cooking and discussions with a video about sustainability and where food comes from.
The brilliance of Root Camp is twofold. First, it really stretches the teens. Not only do they cook a whole tableful of fresh and flavourful food, led by an ex-Moro chef, Sylvain Jamois, and this summer by the food writer and TV chef Valentine Warner; they also forage for food and pick fruit and vegetables, perhaps starting an engagingly “yeuch” competitive slug-hunt to rid the beds of pests. The days are fun and full.
Most importantly, Root Camp embraces the social nature of teenage life. Not everyone will go on a camp, but anyone can use this aspect of the project: the teens’ work is rewarded by good tastes and a good time together.
Teaching cooking is about plotting a series of tasks and also about trust and confidence. “Wherever possible I get them to do something themselves, having given them an explanation,” says Jamois. “You have to be really patient because the last thing you want is to make someone feel inadequate. I tell them that if it goes wrong we can save it; you’re not going to ruin lunch.”
With this grown-up approach, the teens learn to use their judgement and how to adjust seasonings and tastes – for example, judging the sweetness in a cleverly simple dish of yoghurt and honey ice-cream (see recipe opposite). They shell peas while singing the latest hits and learn – by bitter experience – how to keep an eye out for burning bread.
Positive peer pressure and the fact they cook for themselves mean the teens expand their tastes and capabilities in a way that would surprise many a parent. “I’ve learnt how much you can do in a day,” one 15-year-old told me, at the Devon camp, admitting she normally slept in late.
Some fear that the new cooking revolution will founder on a lack of money. In fact, recipes can be taught with just a knife, kettle and hob, or even a microwave. But lack of resources points up a bigger problem: whether food is really regarded as important. It will be simple enough to fill in a few required hours of teaching; it is quite another to take the time and effort to make good food a regular part of the school or home life.