No kitchens at 44pc of Norfolk primary schools
Children at 150 of Norfolk's primary schools are missing out on the sights, sounds, smells and taste of freshly-cooked food because they do not have on-site kitchens.
Figures obtained by the EDP show 44pc of the 339 primary, infant and junior schools catered for by county council-owned company Norse rely on a meals-on-wheels style service.
It means food for thousands of children is prepared and cooked elsewhere, stored in special containers designed to retain heat and transported to dining halls to be served from a hatch.
In recent years, after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's high-profile efforts to overhaul school dinners, Norse has worked hard to improve the quality of food served to youngsters.
But yesterday, campaigners, a school cook and a Norse executive agreed that the effect of storing the food for up to 45 minutes while it travelled between schools meant the meals would always be a poor substitute for a proper kitchen.
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Ian Nutt, regional co-ordinator for Food for Life Partnership, a network of schools and communities in England committed to transforming food cul-ture, said: 'A lot of the schools tell us the quality goes downhill, as you can imagine with any food if you wrap it up and transport it somewhere else.'
But concerns were also expressed that not being able to see, hear and smell meals being prepared in a kitchen, and having no chance to interact with catering staff, could affect youngsters' awareness of healthy eating and where their food came from.
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In Suffolk, just 30 primary schools rely on meals being transported, while in Cambridgeshire 77 primary, infant and junior schools do not have kitchens – although all but four of those are able to reheat food on site.
In Norfolk, Norse caters for all but about 75 of the county's state schools and all high schools have their own kitchens.
Sarah Howat, catering manager of Seething and Mundham Primary School, opted out of county council catering – which involved meals being brought in from Loddon First School – more than three years ago. She said that, by the time it had reached pupils through the school's serving hatch, food had not looked appealing.
'The temperature dropped and it slipped about,' she recalled. 'Steam made it particularly unattractive. Things that should be crispy would be soggy. It wouldn't look at its best, and how it looks is very important to children.'
The school decided to buy a six-ring cooker, sink and mixer so she could prepare and cook her own food. It now has 55-60, and some days up to 70, children eating a school dinner each day out of a total of 82 pupils and recently received a silver award from Food for Life for its work.
Where schools do not have their own kitchens, meals are cooked at other ones and driven to them. All menus meet government nutritional standards, and cooks use fresh ingredients three-quarters of the time.
But, while the food never travels more than about five miles, Chris Cope, operations and purchasing manager for Norse, concedes it would never be as good as a meal cooked on site. 'It will be hot – everything is probed to make sure it is the right temperature – but some things travel better than others,' he said.
'In a school with a kitchen you have got the smells, and it entices people to come and eat.
'Food that goes to a 'dining centre' [a school without a kitchen] is going to be cooked maybe 40 minutes before it's served.'
But it is not just the quality of the food reaching youngsters that concerns Mr Nutt.
He said: 'If a school has its own kitchen, it can then have more control and more influence on the health and well-being of its children. It's about getting staff and children involved in the process rather than it being a service that is brought in.
'In schools without kitchens, there is no connection with what it means to prepare food and to cook food.'
But he, along with Mr Cope, accepts that it would not be possible to have kitchens everywhere, especially given the number of small schools in Norfolk.
Mr Cope said: 'Some schools have 20 kids on the roll. The council can't build a kitchen for that number: it's not cost-effective. But we have got some large dining centres, in Norwich and King's Lynn, where they really should have kitchens because of the numbers involved. I would like to see some kitchens in the bigger dining centres.'
Norfolk County Council said it had looked into putting kitchens in all schools but, at a cost of �30m, did not have the money to do it. A spokesman added that some small sites did not have the space either, but the authority did work hard to stop youngsters missing out.
Sue Astbury, transforming school food co-ordinator, said: 'We recognise the benefits that children enjoy by seeing and smelling fresh-food cooked at their school, which is why we work closely with our schools to ensure children in schools without kitchens are not disadvantaged.
'Children at many schools are able to benefit from cooking themselves, and the curriculum ensures that they are taught about the origins of food and the links between food and health. Very many schools also grow their own vegetables, so that children can learn about where food comes from and experience the joy of cooking their own food: this can also encourage them to try new things.'