Food is important in the lives of children at The Downs School; if you chat to them, it won’t be long before someone mentions their snack time tiffin or their match teas.
They’ve always had hearty nourishment at the school, which is five miles from Bristol, but nowadays it’s increasingly healthy too. The pupils themselves requested that fruit be offered at tiffin as well as biscuits as part of a drive towards a more nutritious diet for everyone.
All meals are prepared on site, using best-quality, fresh and locally sourced ingredients, and every menu is checked by a nutritionist. Information sheets on the tables help the children understand what they need to ensure they have their ‘five a day’.
Headmaster Marcus Gunn said the new approach had begun with the appointment of experienced school catering company Palmer & Howells at the start of the academic year.
“We felt we wanted to change the culture around food at the school,” Marcus said. “The new menus are imaginative and interesting and include plenty of fruit and vegetables. The food is presented attractively and there’s more variety. The vast majority of children have really embraced the change.”
There’s no sneaking broccoli into pasta sauce either. Vegetables are loud and proud – thanks to some fantastic murals painted on the dining hall walls by Somerset artist Natasha Clutterbuck. She brought organic pumpkins, carrots and tomatoes direct from the garden and greenhouse as the basis for her giant still-lifes, and even used beetroot juice and mud from the produce in the paintings.
Marcus commissioned the work after Natasha had worked with pupils in art classes. He believes it has been a help in enabling 21st-century children, especially the younger ones, to understand the link between growing and eating.
“We are very mindful of provenance here and we want the children to be in touch with their environment,” he said.
The children in the pre-prep have grown vegetables in raised beds themselves too, making some into soup and nurturing cabbages to feed to the school’s rabbits. In 2017, there are plans to grow vegetables for use in the kitchens.
Eggs from chickens in the pets’ corner are sold to parents, while the return to health of former battery hens has been another learning experience. There’s plenty of choice at mealtimes and pupils are encouraged to eat everything on their plates, unless they have genuine dislikes or allergies.
“We are a bit old-fashioned and I don’t apologise for that,” explained Marcus. “Over the years we have seen children become increasingly fussy, but usually when we encourage them to have a few more forkfuls they finish the lot. Another thing that’s very effective when there’s too much food waste is to weigh it daily. We always find that by the 10th day the amount has decreased significantly.”
Almost all food waste at the school, which has 280 pupils aged four to 13, is turned into compost for the 60-acre grounds.
It will also be used when spring vegetables are sown in the eco-greenhouse, which pupils and staff have made from plastic bottles.
Parents appreciate the holistic approach to food and wellbeing. “We have invited them in for lunch and they have been surprised at the variety and quality on offer,” said Marcus. “Next we’d like the catering company to offer demonstrations and workshops to give parents and children more insight into food preparation and cooking. Children love that. My wife Val runs a cooking club at school and it is always oversubscribed.”