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The Saddle Hill Foundation Trust (SHFT) School Lunch Programme in Taieri, near Mosgiel, can now regularly include protein in the meals it provides, after Talley’s started donating 20kg of fish every fortnight.
The School Lunch Programme began as a pilot project at the end of last year. Initially, it set out to ensure school children at a lower decile Taieri school had at least one balanced meal a day. The goal of the programme was to improve concentration and achievement levels and reduce absenteeism and behavioural issues.
Meals are prepared by professional chef and nutritionist Ronnie Bhogal at the community centre adjacent to Taieri Community Garden, which donates fruit and vegetables for the lunches.
When the pilot programme commenced last term, it catered for around 30 children, twice a week, at Silverstream South School. It then expanded to every week day, as well as providing cooking lessons to a small group of high-needs students from Taieri College.
At the beginning of this school year, the small team planned on expanding the programme to cater for around 45 children but within a matter of weeks, more than 100 were turning up.
‘Already, we appear to have achieved one of our aims: reduce absenteeism,’ said Jan French, convenor of the Taieri Community Gardens. ‘Consequently, we urgently needed to ramp up our meal production.’ She approached Talley’s with a request for a donation of bulk frozen fish fillets on an ongoing basis, throughout the school year.
Chef Ronnie Bhogal is also a trained pharmacist who understands how critical nutrition is to a child’s physical and cognitive development. More recently, he studied Culinary Arts, focusing on food security in Otago, and said protein was really important in children’s diets. ‘Until Talley’s donated fish, we were paying for protein out of our pockets. We approached a number of companies but Talley’s were the only ones to respond. We couldn’t be more thankful.’
‘Fish is a vital source of not just protein but it is also packed with several essential vitamins and minerals. It should be a part of children’s diets as it supports a growing brain. I am so thrilled that we are now able to provide this to our school kids,’ he said.
He said the 20kg each fortnight enabled him to make one fish meal a week, providing 20 grams of protein to each child. It is served as fish cakes or in patties, which are bulked up with vegetable protein including lentils and chickpeas, to disguise the latter from any fussy eaters.
‘There’s a big problem with childhood obesity,’ Bhogal added, ‘but it’s not because kids are eating too much; it’s because they’re eating the wrong things. Almost every lunch box has flavoured yoghurt or chips in it, but it’s not just because people don’t have the money, it’s the result of a lack of knowledge about nutrition. With the schools programme, kids help in the kitchen and by serving food. There’s an enormous amount of social capital in this.’
Bhogal, who has also made thousands of Food Bank meals, has his sights set on expanding the school lunch programme. ‘We want to bring families along with us. It’s great we’re providing lunches at schools, but there are only 195 school days a year; what about the rest?’
He also expressed concern that young people have lost connection with the seasons and the land. Ronnie says it’s important to teach the next generation about nutrition, and how to garden. As a result, he’s currently writing a cookbook that includes seasonal recipes, featuring ideas for meals using products in season in each of the four school terms.
Both the School Lunch Programme and Community Gardens are run solely by volunteers.
‘Everything achieved thus far has been through up-cycling, recycling, and generous donations of goods and services,’ said French.
Meanwhile, about $1.3 billon of food is wasted every year. Bhogal said he hoped more surplus food finds its way to Taieri.