Chef James Taylor has been working since mid 2019 to transform school meals at two London primary schools - Sir Thomas Abney School in Stoke Newington and Harrington Hill Primary School in Clapton.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan's initiative to provide universal free school meals in primary schools from September 2023 is both a crucial lifeline for families hit by the cost-of-living crisis and an inspiration for change. James and the school have used this opportunity to provide meals that champion more nutritious, planet-friendly food.
James’ school meals introduce more diverse ingredients to the school lunch menu to broaden children's palates and allow more sustainable sourcing, using locally grown produce that benefits the soil, the planet, and the health of the children. James’ goal is to serve meals made with 100% organic British ingredients. Pulses are central to this mission and we've been delighted to support James by providing British-grown beans, peas and lentils.
Implementing these changes has been a learning process on both the challenges and opportunities of introducing more pulses and other wholefoods to the children's diets.
James reports on his progress and insights so far:
“I'd really like to tell you the new meals are loved by all the children and there are clean plates every week but the reality is that the majority of children are still adapting to them.
Generally, from my experience in primary schools, the most popular dishes are pasta, pizza, curry & rice, chicken drumsticks, jacket potatoes, sausages & mash and bolognese. All the dishes you'd expect to find on a 'Kid's Menu'.
Making pulses more popular has been my priority this term. I've used them to make lasagnes, burritos, chilis, baked beans with baked sweet potatoes, bolognese with spaghetti and I've stuffed them in roasted squashes. They were very unfamiliar to the children initially but they are slowly becoming more popular. Using them in already popular dishes really helps.
When dishes featuring pulses have had negative feedback or I hear children saying they don't like it, I try to find out why and see how I can make them more appealing next time. If I don't consistently serve pulses then the favourite dishes I mentioned previously will always be the popular dishes and nothing will change.
I've been sending a lot of emails to the school staff explaining why I'm choosing to keep serving pulses despite them not being the most popular dish. I've explained about their sustainability and supporting the Beans is How global goal of doubling bean consumption by 2028.
I now have the school staff on board which means I can keep experimenting with pulses until they become as popular as pasta.
In my opinion, this could take many years but I think the only way to change children's eating habits and give them the chance of a better diet as they grow is to persist in the face of adversity and keep cooking beans.”
Looking to the future James would like to continue to provide good quality meals cooked from scratch, increase food education in schools, invite expert speakers to visit, and encourage more school trips to farms, markets and food manufacturers, so children can have a more tangible connection with where their food comes from. But costs would have to be subsidised if schools are to afford the best ingredients, pay for educational school trips and cover staff costs to allow more time making sourdough, fresh pastry, meat & fish butchery, more skilled desserts and much more.
James’ work was inspired by the Beans is How campaign to double global pulse consumption by 2028. James is doing brilliant work showing that it can be done but also identifying the challenges of introducing pules to those unfamiliar with them. Getting more pulses into our diets is clearly beneficial to both our personal health and the health of the planet but it’s not easy to introduce new ingredients with unfamiliar flavour, texture and cooking methods. Increasing pulse consumption has to be addressed on multiple fronts and may take some time.
Providing nutritious meals made from environmentally sustainable foods in schools brings many benefits. Firstly, children's physical and cognitive development is significantly influenced by their diet. A diet rich in essential nutrients supports optimal brain function, concentration, and overall well-being. By offering wholesome, balanced meals, we not only contribute to children's immediate health but also lay the foundation for lifelong healthy eating habits.
Adopting more sustainable practices in school meal programs also helps reduce our carbon footprint, conserve biodiversity, and mitigate the strain on ecosystems. It provides a valuable opportunity to educate children about the connections between their food choices and environmental sustainability, fostering a sense of responsibility and awareness of global issues. Alongside James’ school meals, he has been engaging the students and teachers in conversations about pulses and their environmental and health benefits. The children have created artwork using pulses for their dining halls.
Schools also serve as influential institutions that can shape societal norms. By prioritising nutritious and sustainable food options, educational institutions set a powerful example for students, parents and the broader community. Part of James’ work has been to share recipes and ideas and to start conversations about how we can feed children better.
Incorporating environmentally sustainable foods into school meals contributes to wider societal goals of promoting health and environmental stewardship. It's an investment in the well-being of current and future generations, fostering a generation of individuals who understand and value the connection between their food, their own health, and the health of the planet.
James is not alone in his belief that schools and other public institutions should be leading by example. According to a 2023 report from the Food Farming and Countryside Commission, moves to provide healthier and more environmentally sustainable meals in schools and hospitals are supported by 84% of those surveyed.
Projects like these require collaboration and communication. James is keen to hear from others with their ideas or to share experiences from their own work. He can be reached on social media at @chefjamestaylor, where you can also keep up to date on all James’ work.
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