YOUNGSTERS at Stranton Primary are spoilt for choice when it comes to their school lunch.
And coinciding with national school dinners week, they were joined by Mail reporter DOMINIC SHAW and Hartlepool councillor Jim Ainslie.
WHEN I was at primary school the situation when it came to eating the school dinner was simple.
Get into the dining hall, get out of the dining hall and get straight back to the top end of the playground to continue a game of footy – all as quickly as possible.
In an ideal world me and my fellow kids back then would have taken a packed lunch.
A Dairylea Dunker, a bag of crisps and an apple or banana to keep the parents on side was all that was needed.
Quick and efficient, aided by the fact that the school dinners back then weren’t all that great – and that’s a compliment.
How times can change.
I don’t know how the pupils – and staff for that matter – would have taken it if I had rushed through my school dinner at Stranton Primary School in the hope of catching the back end of the lunchtime kickabout with the Year 6 children.
Upon sitting down alongside Hartlepool councillor Jim Ainslie with my steak pie, jacket potato and vegetables, rushing through it was the last thing on my mind.
School catering is a whole different ball game.
For a start there is a lot more choice and the choice is nutritious. It’s in the remit of school catering staff to ensure the food they serve up is healthy.
And, although it may seem a simple change, the move to serve food on a plate instead of those old-fashioned trays where your gravy and custard could very easily become one makes a lot of difference.
Coun Ainslie, the vice-chairman of Hartlepool Borough Council’s neighbourhood services committee, agrees: “Things have certainly changed a lot since I took school dinners.
“I was very impressed with both the choice of food on the menu and the great atmosphere in the dining hall at Stranton.
“For my main course, I chose homemade steak pie with boiled potatoes, fresh cabbage and green beans which was delicious. However, there was so much to choose from including a vegetarian dish and the salad bar with jacket potatoes and fillings.”
And the thousands of primary school pupils across the town obviously agree.
The latest figures show that in the last year the council’s school catering service served up more than 1.3m school dinners.
And unlike 14 years ago when I was at primary school, the majority of kids opt for school dinners instead of packed lunches.
Fifty-eight per cent of primary school pupils in the town have school dinners. That’s a three per cent increase on the previous year and significantly higher than the national average of 43 per cent.
So what’s changed.
Lynne Bell, facilities management officer for Hartlepool Borough Council who is tasked with ensuring that 7,000 school meals are professionally prepared and served up every day with the help of a 230-strong team, explained: “School meals have improved massively over the years in Hartlepool and we pride ourselves on providing a first class service at a reasonable price.
“Overall, children eating a school lunch are having less fat, sugar and salt compared to lunch boxes and we are able to cater for any children that have special dietary requirements.”
And the council continues to do all it can to help families ensure their children are on school dinners. The authority recently froze the £1.90 a day price tag for the second successive year.
I’m sure the kids at Stranton love a kickabout at lunchtime as much as I used to. But I get the feeling they won’t be in as much of a rush to finish their delicious dinner.