‘Nothing more distracting than hunger’: Praise for Hackney School of Food as council launches £300k free meals plan

Pupils Nia and Isaac at the Hackney School of Food. Photograph: Julia Gregory

“We see the immediate impact in attainment in lessons. When the children are fed and watered emotionally they are ready for learning,” said Hackney primary headteacher Marc Thompson.

He can tell the difference when pupils at Mandeville school have eaten well. His school brought in school dinners for everyone, and Thompson said: “I feel very strongly the quality it provides is really beneficial as well.”

He explained: “There’s nothing more distracting than hunger.”

The council picked Mandeville and the purpose-built Hackney School of Food next door to unveil its plan to provide £300,000 for free school meals over the next year.

An estimated 40 per cent of the borough’s children live in poverty, with the cost of living hitting hard.

The Town Hall is providing another £250,000 to reduce poverty and help people access quality food.

Mayor Philip Glanville told attendees at the launch of the council’s report into tackling food poverty at school: “No child should go to school hungry.”

The council is exploring ways to extend free school meals beyond this coming academic year, which has been funded by the Mayor of London.

It comes as education bosses joined pupils at Mandeville as they tucked into a lunch menu offering a choice of jerk chicken, aubergine curry, charred broccoli, rice and peas, ciabatta, cucumber yogurt dip, mixed salad, pickled beetroot and fresh fruit.

Eleven-year-old school council member Isaac said: “I just love that the school caters for vegetarians.”

Nia, also 11, said: “The good thing is everybody eats the meals and we get to try different food.”

The two pupils were enjoying lunch at the Spanish table, which also featured phrases for the children to practice and details about Spanish-speaking communities.

Mandeville headteacher Marc Thompson in the fruit and vegetable garden. Photograph: Julia Gregory

Local children will also get the chance to enjoy a lesson making a meal together at Hackney School of Food.

Pupils from Morningside School were cooking up a storm for an end-of-year class. They made pizza with help from the School of Food’s head of education Tom Walker.

He said: “They’ve made the pizza dough and tomato sauce from scratch, they are using herbs they have picked from the garden here, some of them recognise the smell from pesto.

“They’re using knife skills, chopping up the toppings, and we’ve talked about nutrition, with fibre in the dough and veg on the top as part of their five a day.”

He said it’s a fun way for children to learn about food and enjoy eating together.

Pupils even asked to try capers, which can be an acquired taste, and Tom encouraged them to describe the taste and whether they liked them or not.

Ten-year-old Ihsan relished the lesson. He said he’s a dab hand at making pizza at home and added: “I really enjoyed making it here.”

His pizza was boxed up to enjoy at lunchtime.

Naomi Duncan, the chief executive of Chefs in Schools, which was founded in Hackney, said: “Our ethos is that every child in the country should be able to eat good food at school.”

She added: “Putting any old food on the plate is just not enough.”

She explained how its important it is for the children to learn about making food and to see some of the ingredients grow in the packed fruit and vegetable garden.

“It’s fun and joyful,” she said.

Thompson said before bringing in the school dinners policy at Mandeville, some children came to school with just biscuits in their lunch box.

He described the difference it has made ensuring every child has a hot meal at lunch time.

“Children are happier in the classroom. Lunchtime used to be a  stressful time for children. We know they are getting a healthy meal. There’s an element of risk but by having a garden where they children hae had a hand in growing that food has helped.”

Louise Nichols, executive head of the LEAP Federation, made up of Kingsmead, Mandeville and Gayhurst schools, and the Hackney School of Food, said the secret is that “we do not tell our parents and our children that it’s healthy food, but good food and tasty food”.