Eco-school dinners

A school menu with 95% of the ingredients organic and locally sourced (if not from within 20 km, then from within Catalunya) - is that possible? It seems to be for Ecomenja - a small business based just outside Barcelona working with three schools and two nurseries and supplying 650 meals a day. That may not seem like many meals for a school caterer the size of Manchester Fayre, but 95% is pretty impressive (especially considering they only started last year) - so I thought I'd see what I could learn, and find out their views on scaling up. So on Monday I went to talk with Joan from Ecomenja and to have lunch (which was delicious) with school chefs and the co-ordinator of the dining room monitors.

Joan (a chef himself) and his partner's motivation was a belief that children should be given the best quality and healthiest food possible (while paying producers fairly, making a sustainable living themselves, and not raising the prices for the parents). For them this means an organic menu.

Ecomenja started off supplying one small school. They now work with an associacion of 5 producers, who between them farm 700 hectares (300 of which are organic and the rest in conversion), producing cereals (that they use to make the bread), vegetables and fruit, pulses, meat and dairy. They also work with an ethical intermediary who works with associations and co-ops of producers in Catalunya to supply anything they can't get from their own producers.

The area that they are in has an impressive and quite special history. When the local land was put up for sale for development there was a public outcry and a huge campaign to protect it. This resulted not only in the land gaining legal protection from development but also a strong local awareness and support for the environment and biodiversity. The outcome of this is that last year (only 5 months after they had started supplying their first school) the school I ate in (Las Franquesas), asked them to start supplying local organic produce. Within months they had taken on creating the menus and employing both the kithen and dining room staff.

What is different about them is that they asked the farmers to decide the prices. When the school here first asked them to supply they approached the farmers and said we will want about this much of each crop, how much will that cost? The farmers thought they were mad when they first proposed this, but it has worked. They have developed a really strong relationship of trust with the producers. If a crop is destroyed with the the frost he just changes the menu to use something that they have got.

They have a big meeting once a year with the producers to talk about what their needs will be re crops and quantities for the next year (inbetween times they do it all on a google doc too!), and the growers co-ordinate between them who will grow and supply what. At this meeting they tell the producers what they have had to buy from growers outside the association to see if the growers are able to start producing it here. They also meet with and speak to the individual producers all the time too (e.g. at delivery time) - which means there is regulary opportunity for feedback. The farmers bring the produce to them - they pay the farmers 20 Euros for distribution (which some claim and others, who feel they get paid enough already, don't).

Their menu is slightly higher than the government set menu. They decided to put the price up because as it was initially it gave them no room for manouver if anything went wrong, as it is it gives them about 300 euros extra - so it's not loads more for the parents to pay and not much more for them, but it gives them a bit of room.

I asked how they persuaded people (the parents, kitchen staff etc.) that the change in menu (and price) was a good idea. The co-ordinator of the dining monitors told me that they were convinced just by the presentation they did.

Basically the school contracted Ecomenja because they wanted to start using organic produce. Joan said some of the parents were concerned that there would be less meat on the menu, so they first thing he said in his presentation was organic doesn't mean vegetarian. Secondly he said the main thing we will be doing is increasing the quality of the food your children will eat.

At one of the schools who had less of an ecological focus than this school there was a bit more conflict with the parents initially (mainly because of the decrease in meat on the menu), but once they saw that their children were coming home happier about the school meals they accepted it. Now they even ask them where they buy their salad as the children say they only want to eat the salad they use at school not boring iceberg lettuce (the same with the burgers that the school make by hand using organic local meat). When they said they needed to increase the price slightly the parents were fine about it.

One of the chefs pointed out that the children aren't always happy all the time. They come into the dining room when the children are eating and talk to them about what they like and don't like to get direrct feedback from them. The dinner monitors also play a really important role, Joan said the most important thing isn't that they know about sustainability and why the food is organic etc. (though some of them do), the main thing is the way they are with the children and the care and interest that they show them. Like Food for Life Schools they also make the dinning room a nice place to be in with table clothes and jugs of water on the table etc. What is important is that eating is a pleasure - the quality food and the whole dining experience.

The chefs and the dining room co-ordinator told me that it is more work since Ecomenja took over (preparing all the food from scratch - the croquettes, burgers etc.), washing all the salad, cutting out the bits that have been nibbled, but that it is definitely a more satisfying job. They feel they are doing skilled work and that it is better for the children (2 of them worked there before it was organic and felt happier with it very quickly).

One interesting thing about the efficiency is that they only offer one main meal (apart from any allergies or dietry needs), i.e. the children don't get to choose from lots of different options, which is interesting in terms of both preparation time and lowering carbon emissions - that seems to be the case in most schools from what I can work out (and doesn't seem to be a problem).

They were suprised when I asked them if they had had to work hard to persuade people (the authorities or parents or school) that organic was a healthier option. They thought it was pretty obvious that it was, and said it's not just a belief it's back by a lot of evidence.

To get the contact for the nusery schools they had to tender along with everyone else as it is organised by the local authorities (not the parents as with schools). The mayor is very into organic food, so the tender document emphasised a need to be able to supply organic. Ecomenja's tender came in both as being able to supply the highest quantity of organic produce and the cheapest tender.

I asked Joan if they were thinking of scaling up Ecomenja. He said they talk about it constantly. They were recently offered a contract to provide 4000 meals a day - they turned it down as they feel they don't want to grow to quickly and it not to work. He said they would need to be able to increase the supply at the same time as the demand for it not to fail. He also said that for him and his partner it is a matter of quality of life (they don't want to make lots of money, just have a sustainable living wage). They have just had a baby so they don't feel able to take on more work - and don't want to. If they could take on more schools without lowering their quality of life they would consider it so that more schools could benefit. At the moment their approach is to support other like minded small business to set up and do the same thing in other areas. Over the summer they ran a weeks training for others, showing recipes and cooking tips etc.

What is the key to their success?

The thing that they say is key to making the model work is good day to day management. If you have excellent chefs but they take a long time doing things that they could do more efficiently then it won't work, they are starting to manage to get a balance (though good cooks is a definite plus, and terrible ones a definite no no!). They have had to work with some of the teams to look at how they can make their work more efficient - they work with them though getting them to discuss the problems and come up with solutions for how to change things.

It is key that all the different elements of the team are with you - the chefs, the dining monitors, the school and the producers. If one of them doesn't believe it will work or is against it it won't work - you have to create a good supportive team and working atmosphere. If you cook with organic food but the children don't like the food, or the dining room monitors aren't nice to the children and they go home unhappy it won't work, you'll loose the support of the parents.

Make sure you don't start off with a rigid model, where e.g. you say the school dinners have to be 90% organic straight away, because then any obstacle will stop you, start where you can and increase the organic percentage as you can.

Make sure that you are sure of your values and motivations and be clear about that (without lecturing everyone else about your ideology!)

He said he tries to create an image of normality - so he explains that the menu will be locally sourced and organic - which means fresh, high quality and healthy, but he doesn't talk about chemicals or their ideology. He's not trying to convert people but to show that this alternative model for school dinners is possible, and is not only possible but better.

They key is that everyone has to benefit - the producers, the school/kitchen staff, them (Ecomenja), the parents and most importantly the children.

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