YOU ARE what you eat is a motto epitomised by Park Community School in Leigh Park.
Children dining at the Park Restaurant will get to experience the culinary delights of dishes including Jamaican jerk chicken, Moroccan lamb meatballs in tumeric sauce and teriyaki salmon – a far cry from the Turkey Twizzlers of typical school dinners of the past.
The food revolution taking place at the school is down to the passion and beliefs of headteacher Chris Anders.
‘A lot of what I do is from being a parent and what I would want for my children. Providing quality food, which tastes good and is part of a balanced diet is at the core of that,’ explained Mr Anders.
While the idea was down to Mr Anders, the execution is in the hands of head chef Steve Cross. Having spent the bulk of his career working in the kitchens of high-end hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants he is now happy to be applying his skills to benefit the pupils of Park Community School.
‘Whether working in a Michelin-starred restaurant or in the school kitchen the same principles apply,’ said Mr Cross.
The initiative was launched in 2014 after Mr Anders decided not to renew the existing catering contract in preference of going it alone.
‘Most school meals are pre-cooked and the contracts mean you don’t have access to your own kitchens. I wanted better quality food and the flexibility to make maximum use of our kitchen,’ explained Mr Anders.
Since employing Steve, the school have now expanded the project to also include two additional chefs, three apprentices and four catering assistants.
‘We offer a three week cycle of menu choice with a rotation of food flavours from different parts of the world,’ explained Steve.
Week one includes the culinary delights of Jamaica, Turkey and India, week two has a Latin theme with dishes from Mexico, Portugal and Italy whilst week three tantalises the taste buds with Korean bulgogi chicken, Brazilian lombo pork and cajun cornflake chicken.
‘Part of the menu is about getting children to think about food. We wanted to produce a menu that both children and adults want to eat. It has been a challenge to work within the budgetary constraints but we have managed to provide a main meal, dessert and a drink for £2.30,’ said Steve.
Mr Anders believes the new menu has been welcomed by the majority of students.
Year 9 student, Nicky Gale, said: ‘The food is delicious. I particularly like the curries. From speaking to my friends the food we get here is much healthier than other schools.’
‘I do sometimes get the option of chips but it is good to try different types of food which I would not normally get at home,’ added Kelan Moore, 12.
A key focus for both Steve and Chris is to ensure students are sufficiently fuelled to maximise their learning potential.
‘We are aware of what our children need and have the flexibility to provide it. Providing children with the right types of food ensures they are better prepared to last the day,’ said Mr Anders.
‘Students who are full with the right types of food are far more likely to be focused on what they are doing,’ added Steve.
In order to ensure students students are eating the best quality food at the best possible price, the school have purchased a smallholding which it uses to rear livestock and produce organic fruit and vegetables.
‘All our Year 7s and 8s get the opportunity to visit the farm and help with the cultivation of the crops and looking after the animals. We have pigs, chickens, ducks and goats. This has seen us receive the Soil Association Food for Life Gold Standard in recognition of the quality of our produce and practice,’ explained Mr Anders.
The school have also expanded its enterprise to purchase a mobile catering van which can offer an outside commercial service which has also involved some of the students.
‘We recently catered for 80 paying guests at the Tuppenny Barn and the students, or food ambassadors as we call them, were involved in the whole process,’ said Steve.
Food Ambassador, Faith Young, 12, said: ‘It was fun to be involved. The guests all thanked us for the job we had done.’
‘It is fun but you do feel the pressure. I would like to become a chef one day,’ added fellow ambassador, Tristan Smith, also 12.
With Steve’s support, the food ambassadors have also taken part in a range of cooking club masterclasses which have helped to develop their culinary skills.
Year 9 student, Josh Prately, aged 13, said: ‘I have learnt so much as a food ambassador. I have really enjoyed the cooking classes and have used them to cook for my family at home.’
A FOOD SERVICE NOT JUST FOR TERM TIME
One of the fundamental principles of the initiative is to ensure children do not go hungry in the holidays.
‘Nationally there is an issue of children going hungry during holiday periods. The needs of those children on free school meals doesn’t finish when then term-time ends,’ said Mr Anders.
To tackle the issue the school has established the Munch project to ensure food is readily available to children and families during holiday periods. The need for provision was highlighted in the number of meals provided during the summer break. During this period 1,235 lunches were served alongside 137 evening meals and 97 breakfasts.
‘All meals are provided free of charge and are available to anyone in the local community who is in need of the service,’ said Mr Anders.
‘The Munch project runs for 51 weeks of the year. Every day we provide a breakfast club for our children and each weekend we serve Sunday lunch. We even open on Christmas Day to ensure local families have the chance to get a festive meal,’ he added.
The food initiative at Park Community College has received national acclaim for its visionary approach. Mr Anders recently welcomed celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, as part of a feature set to be screened on Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast.
‘The programme was filming the work of four schools who have been identified for their provision of school meals,’ explained Mr Anders.
The Munch projected has also recently featured on a BBC documentary about holiday hunger.
In recognition of his work, head chef, Steve Cross, was selected as one of the top seven school chefs in the south east and has taken part in the regional finals with the opportunity to go on to compete for the national title.
‘I have a passion for food and I want to produce meals that are interesting to the taste buds and which people will enjoy,’ said Steven.