Pupils in Stirling are taking part in a trial programme to see how salmon can become a delicious highlight of the school lunch menu.
About 18 months ago, my son texted me a picture from school of salmon fillets among the choices on offer for lunch.
At first I was delighted, but then I looked at the picture. There were a load of fillets that had been cooked badly (they were dry and looked over-cooked) and dumped unceremoniously in an aluminium bucket to be served up at lunchtime, almost certainly with chips and nothing else.
I asked my son how he and his friends had responded to the salmon on offer.
“Everyone ignored it, it didn’t look very appetising,” he said.
He was right, it didn’t. It was so depressing that such an opportunity had been missed. The caterers had the chance to introduce a new generation to healthy, nutritious, locally sourced food, food which would boost their brain power, give them important vitamins (including vitamin D, vital in a place like Scotland) and the benefits of omega 3 oils. They had blown it by being unimaginative and lazy.
But what if we could do it better? What if we could provide all those benefits but do it by engaging the pupils with interesting recipes, attractive meals and the right information? And what if we could prove, at the same time, that providing locally sourced, nutritious protein was not prohibitive in terms of cost?
Just as my son and his friends were shunning the salmon on offer at their school, a Salmon Scotland project was gathering pace which – we hoped – would answer all those questions and more.
It finally became real on a quiet, chilly morning in March this year when the first load of 20kg of Scottish salmon fillets was delivered by Scottish Sea Farms to the Raploch Community Campus in Stirling.
That was the start of a 12-week experiment, straddling the Easter break, which is providing pupils in six of the seven secondary schools in the Stirling Council with the chance to choose a salmon dish, once a week for lunch (the seventh school is being used as a control sample with the school getting the nutritional information about salmon but not the fish).
But, crucially, the salmon is not just being over-baked and dumped in an aluminium dish to be ignored by the pupils.
The caterers at Stirling have come up with 21 imaginative recipes – each of which not only conforms to strict national school guidelines, but is also inventive and attractive.
These are just some of the dishes the pupils in Stirling are being offered over the next few weeks: lime and ginger salmon with noodles, Moroccan-spiced salmon and rice, Oriental salmon with Asian slaw and salmon rosti.
Then there are the more traditionally child-friendly options like breaded salmon goujon baguettes, salmon wraps and cold salmon pasta.
Home economics classes are running a video, telling the pupils about salmon and giving them basic nutritional details while all parents have already received information about the project in an email leaflet, sent out over the holidays.
One of the most important parts of the project is a detailed survey which is being conducted to find out what the pupils knew about salmon and seafood before the trial, what they learn over the course of it and how they respond, both to the food and the information provided with it.
About 1,000 students have signed up, making it the biggest such survey of its type conducted in Scotland. We won’t know the full results until some time after the project is completed but it is already clear that there is a lot to be learned from it.
Everyone knows there are considerable health benefits from eating oily fish once a week. What we didn’t know was how to make this happen. By the end of this trial, that should be much, much clearer.
Early indications suggest that uptake of healthy oily fish is much lower in more deprived areas and that children from poorer backgrounds are much more likely to miss out on the health benefits of eating seafood.
The Scottish Government, which wants to drive the take-up of more locally sourced, healthy food, will be very keen on the full end results but so will other branches of the public sector.
So the next step should be to roll out this project to schools all over Scotland and there is no reason why it should stop at schools, why not involve hospitals, care homes and prisons too?
It has been something of a long and hesitant road getting to this point. The Stirling project was due to be rolled out two years ago but the Covid restrictions, which closed school dining halls and kept students at home, forced its postponement several times.
Even at the start of this year, when we decided to launch, as planned, in March, we didn’t know whether the restrictions would be brought back scuppering our project yet again.
But it is not only under way now, it is providing us with a wealth of information and data which we can use to help ensure this is not just a pilot project, but it is the start of something far bigger.
The benefits of regular salmon consumption has been known for some time. What the Stirling project will do is assess take-up, response, feasibility and cost in a public sector context.
Indeed, what started as an idea raised during a single telephone call has morphed into something real, positive and genuinely inspiring. It is crucial, though, that when this project finishes next month, it has to be the start of something bigger.
Everyone wants to see locally sourced, healthy nutritious seafood available to the widest group possible. We are currently showing this can be done, albeit in one small project. The challenge now is to make sure the Stirling Salmon in Schools trial is a beacon, guiding the way for others to follow. If we seize this opportunity, the long-term benefits, for the entire country, really could be significant.