Yarmouth school’s £1 dinners go down a treat
- Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2013
The busy school dinner hall's merry, lively atmosphere is matched by generous portions of healthy, hearty-looking food and lots of lovely choice.
And at £1 per plateful (with dessert) it's no wonder almost every child at a Great Yarmouth junior school is willing to tuck in.
St Nicholas Priory junior in the town's compact urban heart by the market place is serving getting on for twice as many children since it cut the cost from £2.10 to £1 for its hot school dinners in an environment which is more like a relaxed cafeteria - chiming with Government thinking on nutrition and learning.
Unlike the austere institutions of yesteryear there is no stringy meat to be furtively chucked under the table or dubious leftover concoctions called 'cowboy hot pot.'
All the food is healthy, home-cooked and where-possible locally sourced, and the children are loving it - even asking for salad and coleslaw, and embracing a range of vegetables and flavours.
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It's enough to make school dinner evangelist Jamie Oliver fall to his knees in grateful homage to this determined attack on the fast-food generation.
And with a free breakfast club serving sometimes 180 children at 8.10am - with a full English on Friday - it is the school that marches on its stomach and thinks on its feet.
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Chairman of governors James Wright is pleased with what has been achieved and thinks other schools could benefit by looking again at what they serve and for how much. All the children have a choice of four meals every day and can queue up at any time during their one hour break, irrespective of house or class, benefiting friendships and making for a more convivial experience, which combats isolation.
Between 40 and 50pc of children qualify for a free school meal - which in recent years is generally considered the best option in terms of balanced nutrition.
But uptake from the rest of the pupils - many of whom are on the borderline for entitlement - was low enough for the school to register a concern and identify cost as one of the main barriers.
'We made the decision,' said Mr Wright. 'Because we do believe that there is a strong correlation between how they learn and behave after lunch and what they have had to eat. Before, some would pay for their lunch and a lot would bring in a packed lunch.
'We bought this in in September and three weeks later the Government announced free meals for all infant pupils so we are very pleased to be on the same wavelength. We have our own kitchen and do all the meals here, everything is nutritionally balanced. It is also about making good choices early on that will take them through. And we promote that in all areas of school life.'
Offering the discounted meals was part of a wider 'enrichment' effort aimed at giving every child the opportunity to do things they may not otherwise experience, given the deprived status of the area.
Mr Wright added that nearly 60pc of students qualifying for the £900 pupil premium - an accepted barometer of family income - it was clear some households were struggling.
Ensuring that most children had a hot meal would benefit their health and ultimately help them to outperform what the statistics said they were capable of - all without pandering to what children are perceived to want to eat with not a chicken nugget or slice of pizza in sight.
'It is too early to tell exactly what difference it will make but in terms of the numbers of children eating the food and all enjoying it, it seems a success. We hope to maintain it long-term. The evidence will determine things one way or another.' he added.
Head cook Lesley Ball, said she was surprised and delighted at the uptake since the introduction of £1 dinners.
The number of children having a school dinner had risen from 150 to around 250. Her team of four were working extra hard to produce healthy food, cooked from scratch on site.
She said it was a world away from the old days of processed food that was re-heated on trays. Jamie Oliver, she said, had 'changed everything' and it was lovely to see the 'polite and happy' children tucking in to healthy food that they had chosen themselves.
On the day we visited children were variously eating a roast dinner, chilli and rice, tricolour pasta, jacket potatoes with cheese and beans as well as a hot dessert with custard or fruit and clearly enjoying it with little waste.
Jay-Jay Tozeland and Brogan Bilyard-Roberts, both eight, ate every last morsel of their tasty-looking roast beef, including the cabbage. Both boys said they had more packed lunches before September. Jay Jay said the food was 'the best' with a roast dinner and fish among his favourites. For Brogan it was a day of dilemmas with both his preferred meals - a roast, and chilli - being served on the same day. He said he always felt full-up after lunch and that all the hot dinners were good, singling out the spaghetti bolognese for extra house points.