Getting school children to eat more vegetables has always been a huge challenge, but Blackpool Catering Services has managed to increase vegetable portions in its schools by 170% over a 12month period.

Serving an average of 6,000 meals a day across 20 primary schools, 5 high schools and 4 special needs schools, the organisation has recently received a Veg-o-Meter Award for their achievement from Peas Please, an initiative developed by The Food Foundation to increase vegetable consumption.

“We changed the way staff ask students whether they would like vegetables with their meal. Instead of asking ‘Do you want veg?’, it would be ‘Would you like sweetcorn or peas?’ Simple changes like this made a big difference,” says Derek Wright, Catering Services Manager, Blackpool Catering Services. “More vegetables were put into the base ingredients, for example hidden in sauces, so youngsters sometimes don’t know they are there. The way vegetables are presented and cooked is also important, so they look vibrant and inviting.”

The salad bar is another way of increasing vegetable consumption. “We make sure it looks inviting and as it’s unstaffed, the older students can help themselves and make their own choices,” continues Derek. “Menus, in a three-weekly cycle, are changed twice a year and include a weekly Meat Free Monday. Popular dishes include roast dinner such as beef, pork and turkey, although dishes such as quorn and sweet potato curry are well received.”

Derek heads up a team of 150 including 32 chefs/unit managers, who are in charge of their own schools. Virtually all schools have a kitchen, where the staff are based. He says “I’m proud of my team. With all the challenges put before them such as mobilising new schools and responding to the pandemic, they have stepped up to the mark and that’s because we’re all committed to the local town and the young people who live here.”

Blackpool Catering Services doesn’t just provide school meals, it also prepares young people for the future with their in-house Chefs Academy. The students who attend are those who are typically disengaged from their education and at risk of leaving school with no qualifications. Derek explains “The Chefs Academy gives them the opportunity to be in a real live working environment two days a week. They achieve a qualification and go on to further education colleges or apprenticeships. It sets them on a pathway to a hospitality career.”

Academy trainees also get involved in catering for prestigious events. In 2023, they prepared lunch for Prince Edward, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting Duke of Edinburgh Award participants in the area.

Plans are in the pipeline to launch a new Mini Chefs Academy for primary school children. Derek says “We want to introduce cookery to youngsters at an early age as part of what we do as a service and work alongside schools to educate them about food.”