North Yorkshire County Council - under its NYES Catering arm - serves up seven million school meals a year across 378 primary schools.
The council was recently named runner up - behind Waltham Forest Catering in London - of The Green School Meal League, which was launched earlier this year by Meatless Farm in collaboration with the UK’s youngest vegan chef Omari McQueen and non-profit ProVeg UK’s School Plates programme. It was aimed at finding the UK’s greenest school menu to inspire, educate and encourage children to eat more sustainable food. It aims to make 15 million school meals meatless this year.
Judges found that North Yorkshire County Council’s school menus were among the best they’d seen, and the feedback from the children was overwhelmingly positive.
In Harrogate district, the council offers an array of delicious, sustainable menu options, with a meat-free day each week, and a plant-based option three times per week - all of which are extremely popular with the children, whether they follow a plant-based diet or not.
It is one of four special menus drawn up by the catering service each season, along with gluten-free, egg-free and milk-free menus.
Willow Tree Community Primary School, Saltergate Infant and Junior Schools, St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, Woodfield Community Primary School and St Robert’s Catholic Primary School in Harrogate all offer the vegetarian menu.
North Yorkshire’s school meals development chef, Kath Breckon, said: “We have many families who are vegan or vegetarian, but more and more families are starting to eat more plant-based meals. It’s also about being sustainable and supporting local businesses. Our vegetables all come from local supplies and even our dry goods come from no further than Wakefield. We use the “farm to fork” approach which means we know exactly where our food has come from.”
Kath, who is a fully qualified chef, worked as a school cook for nine years before taking up her current role and has been named School Chef of the Year by school food body, LACA, as well as Educating Excellence Primary School Chef of the Year.
North Yorkshire’s school meals catering service works closely with ProVeg UK, which helps local authorities shift to healthier and more sustainable menus and often provides ideas and tips for making plant-based meals more appealing through its pioneering School Plates programme.
Kath says they carefully plan their vegetarian and plant-based menus to make sure they are varied, colourful and nutritious. Using seasonal ingredients also helps improve the nutritional content of the meals and adds colour and variety.
Dishes include ProVeg’s recipe for Sri Lankan sweet potato and coconut curry, along with veggie sausage in a homemade bun with diced potatoes and salad; cheese, spinach and potato bake; vegetable pasta Bolognese or ‘mac and cheese’ served with homemade crusty bread and vegetables.
Kath added: “We put a lot of thought into making sure our vegetarian meals are full of colour and variety. For our older children in secondary schools, we introduced traditional street and fusion vegetarian foods, such as onion bhaji burgers and other street foods which we make from scratch, to give our plant-based pupils that variety and the chance to follow street food trends.”
Jimmy Pierson, director of ProVeg UK, which organised the competition, said: “We were hugely impressed by North Yorkshire’s commitment to reducing their food emissions by introducing more sustainable plant-based meals, and encouraging their uptake by describing them attractively and strategically placing them on their menu to increase popularity.
“Through its school meals, North Yorkshire is a great example of climate leadership, and we’re delighted to be working with them.”
Last month North Yorkshire Council launched a campaign to encourage families to take up school meals as an affordable, healthy option.
The scheme is designed to encourage more pupils to try nutritionally balanced school meals and aims to make sure families eligible for free meals take up the offer as the cost of living impacts further on family budgets.
The school meals service is also helping by tackling some of the barriers to families opting for food prepared in school.
This includes encouraging primary-aged children to try new foods and broaden their tastes by offering them small taster portions at mealtimes.
The council makes sure all its meals are nutritionally balanced - prepared according to the national healthy eating and catering standards - and are produced from fresh in a school kitchen each day, using fresh meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables sourced from the region.
More information on qualifying for free school meals and how to apply can be found at www.northyorks.gov.uk/free-school-meals
Jimmy Pierson, director of ProVeg UK, said: “There are a lot of benefits to a plant based diet. It offers more nutrition for the children. It is lower in fat and calories and can help reduce childhood obesity, which is one of the biggest public health challenges of this century. Meat can increase the risk of heart disease, cancers, chronic diseases and serious health problems. The menus are also suitable for everyone apart from those with serious allergies - they are halal and kosher. This reduces discrimination. In terms of sustainability, animal micro-culture causes a lot of greenhouse gases and is a major contributor, more so than the entire global travel sector. The menus are also cheaper in the long run, they save our partners money.”