School dinner ladies are being drafted in as the first line of attack in Scotland’s war against obesity and unhealthy eating, finds Sandra Dick

A PILE of broccoli and peeled carrots have been chopped at a shining steel counter, ready to be added to more veg and turned into a nutritious vegetable lasagne for next day’s school lunch.

Ayden Clark, 11, apron tied tight, admits he wasn’t always a fan when the veggie dish hit the school lunch menu. Now, having prepared the veg, he’s looking forward to tucking in with his fellow P7 pupils.

“I didn’t think I’d like vegetable lasagne,” he says. “But because I’m helping to make it, I want to try it.”

At another counter, two more pupils from Fallin Primary School, near Stirling, are preparing fruit for lunch. Next day they’ll be back in the school kitchen baking bread rolls, preparing ham salad wraps and helping to make the ubiquitous school lunch treat – apple sponge and custard.

For two days, the young “apprentice chefs” have ditched normal classes for an important lesson in healthy eating, cooking, nutrition – and cleaning up – in their own school kitchen.

Their teachers stay well away. For surely if you want to really teach a child about good food and cooking, who better to enlist than a school dinner lady?

The innovative yet perhaps blindingly obvious solution to breaking Scotland’s deep-rooted love affair with unhealthy choices, by placing children in the kitchen alongside school dinner ladies, is currently under way at primary schools across the Stirling Council area.

It is intended to help break the cycle of unhealthy eating which contributes to Scotland’s disturbing childhood obesity figures, soaring rates of type 2 diabetes and to help ease families out of food poverty by teaching youngsters simple cooking skills.

According to kitchen staff who have welcomed the children into their busy kitchens, there have been impressive and sometimes touching results.

Dinner lady Margot Lyons, catering supervisor at Fallin’s school kitchen and a former pupil at the school, recalls one pupil who arrived with “taste and texture issues”.

“He refused to eat anything other than tomato soup,” she says. “He came in and helped us to prepare dishes in the kitchen. He started to ask about the food and then taste a little bit as he was making it.”

Over the two days, a little boy who had found wholesome, fresh food an oddity and a challenge, turned into one brimming with curiosity. Before long, he was tucking into regular healthy school dinners.

For some of the children who arrive to prep, taste and learn alongside the dinner ladies, the programme is a chance to explore fresh ingredients in their natural, unprocessed state.

Many, adds Lyons, are astonished to discover food is made from scratch just yards from their classrooms, and not delivered pre-packed, having already been magically made somewhere else and ready to be shoved in a microwave or heated up in the oven.

Once side by side with dinner ladies, the children are gently encouraged to taste and ask questions about food. While the veg is peeled and chopped, meat and chicken cooked and the soup simmers away, the catering staff – most of them local mums – share their years of cooking knowledge.

In some cases, the chat can naturally slide towards deeper issues – little worries which might not normally be shared with teachers have been known to be revealed during a cake-making or veg-chopping session.

“They often have different food in school to what they have at home,” adds Lyons, who has seen vast improvements in school dinner standards since she first started in the kitchen over 20 years ago, when pink custard and “chips with everything” were still on the menu.

Now Scotland-wide school meal rules limit portions of red and processed meat like bacon, ham and pepperoni, while menus include at least two full portions of vegetables and a fruit portion as standard, with sugary fruit juices and smoothies are gone.

Chips make a rare appearance – more likely to be sidelined for salad, jacket potato, pasta or rice – while sponge cake and custard is a

once-a-week treat, balanced by fresh fruit, yogurt or banana bread on menus designed to improve health and wellbeing.

They also give vital sustenance to pupils, some of whom may have little else to eat all day.

Although overall the Stirling area fares well against Scottish averages when it comes to unemployment, poverty and earnings, pockets of the district – including Fallin – fall within the 20% most deprived areas of the country.

“There is a need in places like Fallin to teach children about food,” says Helene Roebuck, facilities officer at Stirling Council.

“The children experience things in the school kitchen they may not have a chance to learn at home. They are taught skills for life and learn where food comes from.

“They also learn about the risks of working in a busy kitchen, hygiene, making sure they wash their hands, and temperature control.

“They spend their day in the kitchen, they have lunch with the catering staff and then clean up.”

The young pupils also gain valuable experience of the world of work in a real-life setting, helping to develop their confidence and build independence.

The programme is part of Stirling Council’s ambitious drive to tackle food poverty by improving access to healthy, sustainable food, addressing food insecurity, and increasing access to food education.

Last month, councillors approved a new draft Food Framework which includes plans for free food sessions promoting healthy, sustainable food, and rapid referral to hardship funds and emergency food aid for those in urgent need.

Councillor Christine Simpson,

vice-convener of the council’s Children and Young People Committee, said: “Our Chef Apprentice scheme is a superb example of bringing learning to life and establishing healthy eating habits among pupils at a young age, which is so important.

“Not only does it inspire children and families to develop positive food cultures, the programme also has the wider benefits of helping us tackle health and food inequalities which are key council priorities.”

Back in Fallin Primary’s kitchen, Dylon Smith, 11, has been helping to make delicious fresh cookies and chicken pie.

“I’ve learned how to bake cake, and make icing and dough. I’ve also learned that working in a kitchen can be stressful and how tiring it is,” he says.

“I didn’t know the dinner ladies made everything or that there was so much tidying up to do.”

The programme ends with all children involved in the programme showcasing their new skills at an afternoon tea. Meanwhile, to help encourage home cooking, there are plans for a recipe book inspired by the school lunch dishes.

Headteacher Marie Brennan says: “The children are very motivated, they love it.

“We know there’s a lot of children who are not eating as healthy a diet as they could for many reasons.”

Brennan adds: “There’s a recognition that if we get parents and families in the door to work on things together, it really improves outcomes for everyone.”