The Leon boys beat a path to perfect school dinners

I interviewed the Leon boys about their campaign for better school dinners for the Sunday Times. You can read the full interview, with details of their mission and their relationship with Michael Gove, Jamie Oliver, here . Meanwhile, here’s my take on the lunch:

We are sitting in a downstairs den in a branch of the restaurant chain Leon in central London. Dozens of cookery books are stacked up on shelves along the walls. I glimpse Playboy Gourmet and Nigellissima, nestling among cookbooks from France and Spain and Thailand. Many of the well-thumbed tomes were donated by friends of Leon’s co-founders, Henry Dimbleby, John Vincent and chef Allegra McEvedy.

Dimbleby, son of broadcaster David and cookery writer Jocelyn, is sitting at a table tucking into  a Leon fishfinger wrap, “probably one of our naughtiest wraps, with fresh tartare sauce,” says Vincent.

“Yum, yum, mmmm,” says Dimbleby, laughing.

I interviewed the pair for The Sunday Times last week (see link below) . Last week celebrity chef wars broke out when education secretary Michael Gove announced that Dimbleby and Vincent had been appointed to  review school dinners and come up with ways of improving them by 2013.

Speaking at Lauriston primary in London, which has a kitchen garden and cookery club as well as ambitious plans to put a beehive on the roof, Mr Gove said: “There has been an improvement, with many schools transforming dinners, introducing food-growing into the curriculum and teaching cookery. But there is still more to do.”

The appointment of Dimbleby and Vincent was seen by many as a slap in the face for Jamie Oliver and an attempt to silence the TV chef’s long running criticisms of school food. It’s seven years since Oliver’s TV programme School Dinners exposed just how revolting school dinners were.  Children were regularly eating junk foods like the infamous Turkey Twizzlers, with the average spent on a school lunch just 37 p per child. A generation was being led towards obesity and diabetes, warned Oliver.

Last week the TV chef condemned the commissioning of yet another “costly report”. This just delays action for another year or more,” said Oliver.

“I’m fairly confident that the gentlemen from Leon will end up pushing for the same things that I, and many others, have been pushing for years but the question is:  will Mr Gove listen? Will he finally do anything about the problems in school food?”

So what do Dimbleby and Vincent make of Oliver’s reaction and why have they ventured into territory he first claimed as his own. Is it war at dawn with rolling pins?

“We had two meetings with Jamie when we were deciding whether to take this on,” reveals Dimbleby. “He said ‘I have met six secretaries of state for education. I am frustrated at the lack of action’. But he was supportive of us getting involved. He told us he thought we would do a really good job.”

To be honest, adds Dimbleby. “I am not upset or surprised at people’s reaction . . . If I had worked incredibly hard on something and heard that two people I had never heard of were coming in to do it I would be quite sceptical.”

The way they see it, however, while everyone agrees that school food, with its high fat and sugar content, is poisoning a generation of children, there is still no concrete plan to raise standards nationwide.

Despite millions being spent on improving school cuisine since Jamie’s Channel 4 campaign began, fewer than half of pupils currently eat school dinners and only one in five schools gives children at least one helping of vegetables a day. Pizza and fried food are still the norm in many canteens.

“If there was a blueprint for change, there would be no reason for us to get involved,” says Dimbleby. “But people said to us, there are lots of good things happening, but no consensus for what needs to be done.”

With their backgrounds in management consultancy – they met at  Bains, one of the top management consultants, as well as their experience setting up Leon, a chain of 13 restaurants that offer healthy dishes like baked fries and chicken and chorizo wraps, but packaged with all the allure and fun of fast food, they says they are the people to come up with a plan of action.

“One always has the impression in the private sector that in the public sector it operates like a Stalin or Nazi state, that one day someone passes a law and the next day all the cooks and teachers will do something,” says Vincent.

“But that isn’t the way it works. Everyone in the country isn’t going to have lamb stew on a Monday like they do in France.  The trick is to give cooks and teachers the inspiration to own change…while giving them processes to support them. We know how to do that, we have done it.”

Their plan will be published in 2013 and until then they will both spend two days a week on their new  task. They are being paid expenses – about £30,000 for  a member of staff to cover the time they are spending away from their business.

Already  they have stories to tell about some of the dozen or so schools they visited while deciding whether to accept the role of government advisers.

“There was one school I went to in Hackney, London,” says Dimbleby.

“One woman working there was amazing. She had been at the school 22 years. At the beginning the Inner London Education Authority was responsible for supplying school meals all over London. They would receive whole sides of beef and butcher them in the kitchens. Then in the 1980s the service was given to local councils. Hackney council worked out it could make money from franchising the catering to fast food outfits. [Under the new regime], the kids would be given sausages and burgers, and they would be deep fried. She told us that there used to be fights in the dining hall, which she thought was a lot to do with food. They had to have two security guards in there. One day she went to the head and said ‘You’re killing these children’. Fortunately, the head said to her ‘OK, why don’t you run it?’. So she did and gradually she started to change the children’s food habits. Now she says kids come in to the school from primary schools saying ‘Where are my fruit and veg?’. She was brilliant she ruled that dining room.”

After Oliver’s first TV programme in 2005, tough new minimum nutritional standards were introduced by the last government. Despite this,  horrified at what they were seeing on their TV screens, many parents switched their children to packed lunches. As a result only around 40 per cent of children currently eat cooked school dinners in primary and secondary school. The pair see their job as persuading more children to take up school dinners and persuading  schools where food is still below par to do better.

“If you look at the underperforming schools no one wants to serve children bad food. Noone wants to let kids to be at school not understanding how to feed themselves how to keep themselves well. The question is what are the barriers stopping those schools, how can they be removed,” says Vincent.

“Some of the magic ingredients for success we have seen so far include having a school chef who is a personality who takes up the cause of healthy meals, and a  head prepared to implement a business manager’s vision,” says Dimbleby.

“There are lots of little ideas we want to implement, too. A teacher pays £2.70 for their school lunch  if they eat with other staff, only £1.80 if they sit with the kids. That helps a child eat communally. That practice could be adopted in many schools.”

Dimbleby is also keen on setting up a national website so that every child could blog about their school lunch – like Martha Payne, the Scottish schoolgirl whose postings on her school dinners have named and shamed the authorities.

“I would like to set up a website where every school in the country was encouraged to post pictures of their food. So that parents could click on the pictures and see what their kids were eating. Keen to get everyone in the country posting pictures of school food,” he says.

The pair even have fish and chip Fridays in their sights. “It seems to be a country wide phenomenon,” says Henry. “We went to one school and asked a girl there, what would you change? She said Every Friday for three years Fish and Chips. That’s what I’d change.”

With young children of their own, theirs is a personal as well as a commercial crusade.

Dimbleby’s son George, four, the oldest of three, will in September start at Gayhurst primary in Hackney.

“George is a classic young boy,” laughs his dad. “If you gave him cake he would eat cake all day long. While they are trying, I think the school dinners could be better. Spaghetti Bolognese, chilli con carne, that’s the kind of meal that’s served.”

Nonetheless, at his state nursery George does eat school meals. “He likes his dinners because he likes the cook. From the schools we have seen so far that are doing well  – the cook was out there, quite a character, selling the food.”

Nor are things much better at Cumnor House, the private school Vincent’s daughters, Natasha, 12 and Eleanor, six attend. “At my kids school, bless them, they get given a doughnut in the afternoon for energy”, wails Vincent. (Leon is named after his father, who has suffered from poor health).

But, he adds, Martin, the chef, is good at telling his daughters to cut down on their wheat intake. “I have trained my kids – probably made them too paranoid – to understand what is healthy or not. The chef does say ‘Oh Natasha you don’t want so much wheat, do you? I am sure there are lots of freaky deaky middle class parents saying ‘Oh my kids don’t eat wheat and I am one of them. Wheat has been so modified – it’s a big cause of why people are becoming wheat intolerant.

“Working with nutritionists at Leon made me understand how vital food is to how you feel every day as well as your long term health,” he goes on.

“I am seriously angry – ask my kids –for instance, there are some sweets called Percy Pigs which are sold at M and S. The packet says they are made from fruit juice. But they are mostly made from sucrose and gelatine and sugar, not fruit juice. I see kids all the times having their bodies screwed up either from ignorance or exploitation.”

Ask whether parents are partly to blame for pupils’ reluctance to eat healthily and the pair cough and laugh with embarrassment. In the wake of Oliver’s Channel 4 protamme one mother in Rotherham was caught trying to stuff burgers through the school railings to her child because she said the new healthy school dinners were leaving her youngster hungry.

The trick they think is to thread food through the curriculum, so that schools offer cookery classes and gardening clubs and involve parents in helping look after the gardens in the holidays so that they get a sense of how vegetables are grown and can be used in meals.

In a cook book to be published this autumn the pair will reveal some of their own tips for getting young kids to eat healthily. “Hugh Feannley Whittingstall says don’t disguise food for young children, but I think he’s wrong,” says Dimbleby. “At home I give George terrible lies. Kale is moonweed. I call swede alien discs and he loves it.”

They are also opening a cookery school  for children with kidney problems and have ambitious plans to expand Leon to a global empire of no fewer than 2000 restaurants.

Dimbleby himself, an old Etonian,  admits he was lucky to grow up in a household where fresh home cooked food eaten around the dining table en famille was the norm.

He has fond memories of holidays in Devon where he picked mussels off the rocks and his mother would serve them up for dinner followed by home made plum ice cream.

“Food was a big part of our family and now we want to create a  consensus around food,” says Dimbleby.

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One Response to The Leon boys beat a path to perfect school dinners

  1. Tammara says:

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