East Renfrewshire Council’s school holiday programme of activities has been running for over a decade. They currently cater for all children across the authority from nursery level to S1 (or, from 3 to 11/12 years old). It was initially set up in order to ensure that potentially vulnerable students – those who are entitled to free school meals – had access to healthy meals outside of term time. Attendance is free for these children, ensuring they get a full nutritional meal.
Holiday hunger is an ongoing issue for local authorities. Families of children eligible for free meals at school may struggle with the extra costs they incur at home during the holidays, and so these children may not eat the balanced meals they require. A lack of nutrition can lead to weight loss, malnutrition, and an inability to concentrate upon the child’s return to school. Not only that, but these children are likely to develop unhealthy eating habits that remain with them well into adulthood, causing health problems in later life and placing an avoidable strain on the NHS.
Although East Renfrewshire’s holiday programme has always catered for these vulnerable children, ensuring they are able to eat well during holiday time, the council recognised that this was merely a short-term solution to a long-term problem. In response, they chose to do something about it. When planning their Spring 2016 programme of activities, they designed a programme that worked to improve the health of the children – without restricting the fun factor. During that holiday, older children who attended were given the opportunity to learn cookery from the school catering staff, and took control of preparations for lunch each day. This was then served to all of the attendees.
To kick-start this new activity, professional chef Ian Brown was invited to Barrhead High School, in the authority, to do a cookery masterclass with the children. The chef, who runs the Ian Brown neighbourhood eatery in Glasgow Southside, showed the youngsters how to cook inspiring dishes like smoked haddie ceviche, stovies and chocolate fondant for dessert. Throughout the rest of the holiday programme, the children continued their cookery masterclasses with school catering staff, who also took them through health and safety regulations within the kitchen, including a food hygiene course. At first, the staff found this new role quite challenging, something entirely different from the hustle and bustle of a busy school kitchen. Yet they also found it highly enjoyable and rewarding, as they were able to impart their cooking knowledge to the children, and teach them about the benefits of eating healthy home-cooked meals. This process teaches them important life skills, as well as showing the children how to prepare healthy, inexpensive meals which they can then make at home and take with them into adulthood.
In East Renfrewshire Council, school catering and holiday clubs such as this one sit in the Education department, which budgets to afford programmes like this throughout the year. Though the council have also been working alongside other council services too; Nicky Joiner, catering co-ordinator for East Renfrewshire Council said: “We’ve worked in partnership with East Renfrewshire Culture and Leisure to develop an innovative school holiday programme that allows pupils to access nutritious meals during school holidays for in excess of ten years.
“The cooking classes offer a safe and nurturing environment to engage children in nutrition and gives them the skills to prepare heathy, tasty food and enjoy many physical activities offered. The youngsters who attend really enjoy themselves and it also provides them with the opportunity to make new friends.”
The Barrhead area has a great success rate for this programme, with 86% of those children who are eligible for free places enthusiastically taking them up. Alongside the lunch, they spend the morning and afternoon doing activities, though the day is predominantly structured around lunchtime. Not only is this treated as a time to cook and eat, it is also a very social part of the day. The children sit and eat with staff, who ensure that they try everything on their plate. The meals are served ‘family style’, with cutlery on the table, and good table manners are taught to the children.
An amalgamation of eating healthier, socialising more, and maintaining an active routine means that the children’s behaviour improves when they return to school. This, of course, has a positive knock-on effect for their education. All of these excellent effects mean that East Renfrewshire Council are committed to maintaining the holiday programme of activities, and further helping the children in the authority to thrive and grow.