The Cooking Bus is having a positive impact on schools as it works to rectify major shortcomings in food education. Liz Hamson reports on its achievements

Why do we need fat in our diet?” a teacher asks her class of nine year olds.“You mustn’t have any,” is one child’s adamant response. She adds: “My mum says the Atkins diet is best.”

Quite apart from the fact that had the teacher asked the same question of an adult, it may well have elicited a similar answer, the child’s confusion between low fat and low carbohydrate is typical of the dangerous misconceptions today’s children have about food, according to disturbing research revealed exclusively to The Grocer.

Cooking Counts assessed the impact of the Waitrose and the Royal Society of Arts-backed Focus on Food Campaign to improve practical food education in primary and secondary schools.

Launched in 1998 in response to concerns cooking had been downgraded to such a degree in schools that children were unable to boil an egg let alone understand its nutritional value, the programme’s centrepiece is the Cooking Bus, an expandable pantechnicon fitted with four fully equipped cooking areas that tours registered schools round the country.

The observations of the teachers who accompanied the bus as well as the pupils and teachers it visited exposed serious shortcomings in the country’s food education. One of the most worrying findings, made at the outset of the research, was that seven out of 10 schools did not have an area dedicated to food activities.

Anita Cormac, a former home economics teacher who is director of the Focus on Food campaign, says that when the national curriculum made the switch from the hands-on but sexist home economics to the unisex but theoretical design and technology, cookery became a lost art. “When home economics was downgraded and turned into food technology, a lot of schools closed down their home economics departments and built food technology labs,” she says.

“I’m very concerned that a whole generation has missed out on the skill of cooking.”

The research reveals that: schools, particularly those in rural areas, lack the time and financial resources to teach practical food activities; teachers are not skilled enough to teach practical cookery skills; and children in rural areas understand less about food than their urban peers.

It also highlights how poor children’s diets are. Cormac says: “When the researcher asked children what they ate, a lot said processed food. Not a single child associated cooking with raw ingredients. They all associated it with reheating.”

She adds: “Many children are unable to use a knife and fork because they’re too used to eating finger food and we have had lot of children in Scotland in particular saying: ‘I shouldn’t be having this but it’s what my parents give me’.”

Parents are one group that Cormac feels need to be targeted more aggressively. But, for the moment, the emphasis is on schools and more specifically on teachers. The campaign is not simply a bid to reinstate old style home economics to the national curriculum, she insists. “It’s totally geared to the practicalities of modern life,” she says, adding: “We have mainstream teachers who teach teachers to teach cookery skills as well as classroom management and the relationship between practical teaching and the curriculum.

“A lot of primary school teachers don’t understand food themselves - for instance, that children do need full fat milk in their diets because it contains vitamins A and D.”

Schools receive resource materials, such as the Cook School magazine, illustrated by Waitrose, and practical guidance for teachers - and they need it, according to Cormac. “Teachers have to go back to basics,” she says, adding that teachers supposed to be experts in nutrition regularly contact Cooking Counts to request training.

Cooking Bus teachers are more than prepared to criticise school catering facilities. “We take an active stance against schools with fizzy drink machines,” says Cormac. “And we drew schools’ attentions to the fact they need to exemplify good practice in their canteens - that they should be including more things like wholemeal bread and jacket potatoes.”

The good news is that the buses are having a positive impact. Schools working towards the government-backed Healthy Schools Awards benefit from classes on how to improve lunchbox food, for instance. “We also show children how to store food,” says Cormac. Teacher feedback suggests they now feel more confident they are teaching children the right skills. And there is now a second bus funded by the Food Standards Agency, an addition Cormac describes as a big step forward.

However, although Waitrose extended its initial three-year sponsorship by a further five years in 2001, Cormac concedes the campaign is constrained by lack of resources. Until the second bus arrived, the waiting list for visits was seven and a half years. Even with it, says Cormac, “we need at least three more buses, including a separate bus for Scotland and a teacher training bus.” The buses don’t come cheap at £250,000 each, but Cormac hopes that the impact of the first two will encourage another sponsor to jump on board.

She acknowledges the Cooking Buses have only scratched the surface of the problem. If children are to appreciate the difference between Atkins and a low fat diet, the government must update the menu of the national curriculum first.

Cooking counts: what's been achieved
At the outset of the Cooking Counts campaign:

Seven out of 10 schools did not have an area dedicated to food activities

None of the children were able to relate cooking with health

80% of teachers had not been trained to teach practical food education.

Teachers lacked cooking and food skills

Children said cooking meant heating up

Children ate mainly pre-processed foods

Cooking was not included on the timetable
Six years on:

24% of key stage one and 31% of key stage two children understood the concept of food preparation

Teachers were more confident when teaching children about food; they had broadened their culinary skills and understood the need for formal training

Children understood the idea of eating as a social activity

Schools that had an unorthodox approach to food education developed a more thematic approach