The kids don't like the milk. No - that's not quite it. The kids are frightened of the milk. In fact, some are scared witless. The free school milk comes in cartons depicting macabre Japanese cartoon characters in a fight between good and evil. Children who get the evil character are dropping their milk in fright. And there's another problem. Some of the cartons don't have straws attached.
It's another day at Amy Johnson Primary School in Sutton, Surrey. Roger Denton, head of catering for the London borough, is listening to head teacher Mick Kaye. Something that should be simple and straight-forward - giving free milk to kids - is suddenly complex and problematic. Why?
The supplier, Express Dairies of nearby New Malden, has a month's sponsorship deal with a Japanese cartoon and computer game company. The images may be suitable for older kids, but not for the four- and five-year-olds. "We don't want it," Denton says. "The kids are frightened. The supplier hasn't consulted with us, and they should have."
Have you noticed school meals have become a hot topic recently? First there was research from Cardiff University that hit the headlines, saying caterers spent an average of 32p on the food in a school meal - 10p less than is spent on prisoners' meals. Then Jamie Oliver put the boot in, calling school meals "terrible" and saying: "Somebody really needs to do something about food teaching in schools." You can hardly blame school caterers for going on the defensive.
But is Oliver right? The short answer is perhaps yes and no, depending on which school you look at. What is beyond doubt is that he has raised two key issues surrounding school meals: education on what constitutes a balanced diet, and the quality of school meals on offer.
Amy Johnson Primary has all the hallmarks of an inner-city school, despite being in suburban south London. The school serves 6,000 residents on a large housing estate that is in the process of being torn down for regeneration. About 20% of the school's 350 children are from ethnic minorities and half of those are refugees. The school's high uptake of free school meals (150 of the 250 children who take a hot meal) is unique in the borough of Sutton.
Head teacher Kaye has won £8,500 extra central government funding to start a breakfast club from Easter, because so many children arrive at school with nothing in their stomachs. Initially, Kaye is targeting 30 families as part of a social inclusion package. The children in need will come to school an hour earlier to have breakfast.
He has also applied for a similar amount from the New Opportunities Fund for children who need to be in the school's care until 6pm and require an afternoon meal. He says the hot meal service is of "paramount importance", and many of the pupils are happy to eat whatever they can get.
Kaye is pushing for more drinking water taps to be installed and for parents to make sure their children have a water bottle they can refill regularly. In neighbouring Croydon, two schools saw improved Standard Assessment Test results after the children drank more water every day.
Because most families no longer sit down to eat regular meals together, the school is teaching its four-year-olds how to use a knife and fork. There are three staggered sittings for lunch. The foundation year have an hour and 20 minutes to get to grips with their cutlery and tuck into sweet corn, peas, pizza and mashed potato. Midday supervisors help them.
It is clear schools have an important part to play in establishing good eating and drinking habits, and the earlier the better. The atmosphere of a well-run school of contented kids is unmistakable.
Some critics say outsourcing school catering has broken the traditional links between catering and teaching, and that one-off healthy-eating events pay only lip service to the importance of food education. Beverley Baker, head of commercial services for Surrey County Council, says: "We rely so much on outside agencies coming into schools with educational games or theatrical presentations. It's not sustainable. Food education needs to be put back on the curriculum."
The need for food education extends beyond the classroom. All school catering staff receive minimum food safety and hygiene training, but because of the skills shortage, kitchen staff are sometimes not trained adequately.
In April 2001, the Government introduced nutritional standards as a requirement in all maintained schools in England. They provide a good way of educating kids about the five food groups (see below) and the importance of a balanced diet. But there is no formal enforcement, and some believe educational standards body Ofsted should perform this role.
When school caterers are criticised, they point out that the alternative - a packed lunch box containing sandwiches, crisps and a chocolate bar which has often spent the morning on or near a radiator - is not even subject to nutritional standards .
At a recent conference on food service in the public sector, Jim Walker, chief executive of Initial Catering Services, claimed that 48 out of 50 suppliers didn't know what the nutritional guidelines were. If so, why not look at alternatives? There is growing support for using local, traceable food.
Peter Dummett, chief purchasing officer for Devon County Council, says there is political pressure for him to support local suppliers rather than buy food from multinationals with depots outside the county.
Yet under European law, he cannot specify in tender documents that the supplier must be from Devon. All contracts worth more than £150,000 a year must be advertised in the official journal of the European Commission, and Dummett says it is not practicable to break contracts into smaller groups to avoid European tendering.
Tender documents contain a list of delivery points and there is no reason why a supplier cannot supply to just one school. But the risk here is that large urban schools are cherry-picked and teachers in rural areas have to get milk from the nearest supermarket. Transportation is a major cost (£260,000 a year) for the council.
EU public procurement regulations may constrain, but are not set in stone. There are examples of downsizing to avoid the rules or work round them. St Peter's Primary in East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, opted out of the local authority's catering service in 2000 and employed Jeanette Orrey to source local meat, dairy products and organic vegetables.
On hearing the terms "organic" or "healthy changes", many school caterers ask: "But will the kids eat it?" On tight budgets, what goes into the bin is just as important as what goes into the kids' stomachs.
But there has been no radical change at St Peter's. A typical meal includes beef casserole and dumplings, cheese pasta with fresh bread, broccoli, carrots or Brussels sprouts, followed by jam sponge. "What is important is the quality of the ingredients and knowing where they come from," says Orrey. "One day a week, we serve chips, fish fingers and chicken burgers. It's a balanced approach."
Orrey admits buying locally is more expensive and it is tough, but by no means impossible, to balance the books. And the benefits are considerable. Uptake of hot meals at the school has jumped from 50% to 80%. In summer, it organises trips to the suppliers' farms so pupils can see exactly where their lunch comes from.
Orrey's experience has attracted so much interest that she has set up a company, Primary Choice, to offer help to other schools thinking about doing their own catering.
Other examples come from south Gloucestershire, where 115 schools are working together and have adopted a non-profit approach, which has released more money for ingredients. A public procurement partnership in Powys, Wales, between the council, the health care trust, Cardiff University and the Soil Association is buying local food for the county's schools and hospitals.
School caterers complain of being starved of funds by successive governments. But it is debatable whether a simple cash injection would bring significant improvements. There is a growing awareness of the need to look at the whole food chain, and the co-dependence of sustainable agriculture, education, health and the environment.
Better food improves the health and educational performance of kids. Schools and hospitals are seen as the logical places for a concerted local food campaign in the UK because they serve the most vulnerable sections of society.
The schools we visited
Catering annual turnover: £3.9m (primary schools £2m, high schools £1.5m, other contracts £400,000)
Food costs: £1.2m
Catering wage bill: £1m
Sundries: £50,000 (transport £1,700)
Repayment to schools: £90,000
Primary school meals: 1,140,000 a year (6,000 a day)
High school daily transactions: 4,819
Daily customer transactions: 10,819
St Peter's Primary School
Kneeton Road, East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire NG13 8PG
Tel: 01949 21182
Fax: 01949 829098
Devon Direct Services
Catering annual turnover: £12m (Devon primary schools £5.3m, Devon secondary schools £3.4m, Torbay £2m, other contracts £1.3m)
Food costs: £4.6m
Catering wage bill: £4.9m
Sundries: £780,000 (transport about £260,000)
Repayment to schools: £870,000
Budgeted primary meals: (Devon and Torbay) 5.4 million a year (23,400 a day).
Daily customer transactions: 53,000
Nutritional standards: a summary of the law
Food group A: fruit & vegetables
Food group B: starchy foods
Food group C: meat, fish and other non-dairy sources of protein
Food group D: milk and dairy foods
Food group E: foods containing fat and/or sugar
Nursery schools: food from each of the groups A, B, C and D shall be available every day.
Primary schools: food from groups A, B, C and D shall be available every day so that fruit and at least one vegetable are available every day.
Fish is served at least once a week, red meat at least twice a week, and fried food no more than three times a week.