19 | Mar | 12

Richard Johnson

Fasta Pasta

Jamie Oliver must rank quite high on the hit list of large multinational food corps in the UK and the USA after all his healthy eating shenanigans. Siobhan O’Neill, a journalist specialising in school dinners, catering and hospitality, is pretty sure that several members of LACA (the Local Authority Caterers’ Association) would have happily painted a target on his back. But not any more. Here Siobhan looks to the future……

When the government reacted to Oliver’s school dinner revolution by imposing strict nutritional standards on both primary and secondary schools, LACA – understandably – panicked. The initially introduced food standards had seen their meal uptake numbers plummet, particularly in secondary schools where hungry teens were big fans of the much maligned Turkey Twizzler — or the traditional burger and chips dinner.

It didn’t help that secondary schools were not, usually, nice places to eat lunch. Poor investment in infrastructure means canteens are tatty and unwelcoming. Lunchtimes have been cut dramatically – often to less than 40 minutes – so getting 1000+ kids through the tills with time to spare to actually eat requires a battle strategy so impressive the MOD should consider having a word with their local dinner lady.

So when the nutritional standards were imposed and schools caterers were convinced the only way to meet those standards was to make kids eat a set, sit-down meal, they thought the death knell was sounding for their service. Many schools let their kids out at lunchtimes and the local takeaways were rubbing their hands in glee.

Meanwhile manufacturers like McCain – suppliers of Ben Nevis amounts of chips to the schools – were also wondering what the changes would mean for them, now fries were virtually banned from the menu. But strangely enough, innovation around the street-food revolution stepped up to save the day.

Recognising a need for ‘grab ‘n’ go’ food for time-pressed, brand aware kids, that was quick and simple for school caterers to prepare and serve, yet simultaneously met the nutritional standards, manufacturers got clever and created a whole new generation of street-food style offerings (see the funky pasta rig above) that mimic the kinds of takeaway stuff kids love. And yet it’s healthy and tasty.

If you walk into your local secondary school now, chances are you’ll see kids eating a range of pasta or noodle pots, curries, pizza slices, sub-style hot sandwiches, slushies, smoothies, shakes, lollies, baguettes, pretzels and hot and cold wraps; all designed to be eaten on the move, and all meeting the strict nutritional standards.

It’s making the distinction between junk food and fast food. Yes these are all food items designed to be held in the hand and eaten on the go, but it all adheres to 17 strict guidelines on salt, fat, sugar, fibre, vitamins, minerals, iron and calcium content. And studies from the School Food Trust are beginning to demonstrate that kids who eat this nutritionally balanced food are showing improvements in their concentration and behaviour, and therefore their results.

Not only that but kids love them – often because they’re branded fast food style items just like the stuff they pick up on the high street. And some have even set up Facebook fan pages dedicated to their favourite pasta pots. Remarkably it’s a win, win, win for everyone, and to prove the point meal uptakes are increasing year on year. Suppliers, school caterers, schools, kids and the government are all feeling pretty happy about it. Who would have thought we’d have the humble street-food stall to thank for it?