How one school is offering pupils seasonal, local and organic food
“No Limits…Just Possibilities” is St Joseph’s motto, and it shines through brilliantly in the way the school has chosen to take on the Food for Life Partnership (FFLP) work. With 70 pupils who all have complex learning disabilities, fulfilling the FFLP criteria could have presented an insurmountable challenge. But not at St Joseph’s. Here the staff has taken on a transformation of the school’s food culture in a unique way, adapting the FFLP criteria to suit learners’ needs and to make food education an essential part of their life skills development.
Mary Fawcett, Headteacher, commented: “At St Joseph’s we are fully committed to the well-being of both learners and the workforce as a whole. Involvement with the partnership has encouraged our learners and staff to cook and eat more healthily and shown just how easy it is to grow your own food. It is now an integral part of life at St Joseph’s for learners, staff and families. Well-being has definitely improved.”
Eating school meals is compulsory at St Joseph’s, so when parents started to ask for healthy and additive-free food, the Catering Supervisor, Alison Kendall, decided to make school dinners with fresh ingredients, many of which are local and some organic, and avoid all additives. Lunchtime is also a time for learning at St Joseph’s, and the children are encouraged to try new foods. This can be quite a challenge for pupils with complex learning difficulties and sensory integration issues, such as those on the autistic spectrum, who might only want to eat certain foods in a specific order, and of particular colours.
Located in the beautiful Surrey countryside, St Joseph’s is lucky to have lots of space for growing their own fruits and vegetables. The learners can get involved in growing as part of the after school Gardening Club or, more seriously, as part of the Horticulture Enterprise, which involves sheltered workshops designed to enable learners to get a taste of real working life.
Horticulturists and gardening teachers, Bryan Lumsden and Mick Nicholls, have made huge efforts to tailor the garden and greenhouse to the individual children and young people’s needs, not only in a practical way, but in a developmental way too. One child desperately wanted to grow strawberries to make strawberry ice cream; so now he is working with Bryan on creating a small strawberry patch.
It can be difficult engaging pupils, but Bryan finds a very practical approach normally works. “I take the children to the compost heap and show them how it works, while telling them why we do what we do” says Bryan. “They like sprinkling out the seeds and they just love watering more than anything.” To avoid over-watering, without always having to negotiate the hose back, Bryan and Mick are also creating a pebbled area with drainage in order to move plants there to be watered.
Cooking at St Joseph’s is even more integrated into the curriculum and developmental learning than gardening. Food Technology teacher, Melanie Gray, explains how the emphasis on healthy food and good cooking has changed many things in the school. “When they start here, many of our learners on the autistic spectrum don’t like coming into the kitchen, let alone cooking, and, as we really want the children to enjoy being in the kitchen and enjoy cooking, it can be quite a process.’’
“But usually, after a while, all the learners get really involved in one way or another. One learner with autism used to have chocolate cake as his ‘special interest’, but now it’s tomato soup. Another learner is not keen to be in any class, but cooking….Even the teaching assistants have changed their eating habits since we embarked on our good food crusade.”
Mother and governor Jackie Scandrett says: “When my son started at St. Joseph’s, he was only eating a limited soft diet consisting mainly of baby food. Now he eats almost everything, from curries to paella! He is healthier and has grown, so the school has really done a great job.”
Headteacher Mary Fawcett says that, besides the obvious benefits for the learners, such as getting a better choice within the dining room and learning to grow their own food, it also has a therapeutic benefit for learners. She says: “We have challenging learners here who are very anxious. Inside the classroom they often can’t cope but once they are out in the outdoor environment, and particularly in the garden, their anxiety levels come down and they’re actually able to focus, so the tasks we carry out in the garden are actually really, really important.”
Food For Life
The Food for Life Partnership is a network of schools and communities across England committed to transforming food culture. Led by the Soil Association, the Food for Life Partnership brings together the practical expertise of the Focus on Food Campaign, Garden Organic and the Health Education Trust.
Food for Life Partnership Silver Mark schools serve seasonal school meals with at least 75 per cent of dishes freshly prepared by a well-trained school cook. Pupils and parents are involved in planning improvements to school menus and the dining experience via a school nutrition action group, boosting school meal take-up. Every pupil has the opportunity to visit a farm during his or her time at school, and opportunities are given for groups of pupils to get involved in cooking and food growing activities.
Meals are served on plates, not flight trays, and a range of local and organic items are used. All chicken, eggs and pork are Freedom Food or free range, and no fish from unsustainable sources is served. The school has a cooking club, and pupils have the chance to cook with and eat the produce they grow in the school garden. Parents and the wider community get involved in food education via food-themed events.
St Joseph’s Special School, Cranleigh, Surrey
Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 41: July/August 2009.