I’m sure you can imagine the scene: a school canteen at lunchtime, it is loud, it is busy, there is good-natured pushing and shoving while teachers try to keep order.
When the students get to the front, there is something new on the menu. This week it is salmon and spicy noodles; next week it will be Moroccan salmon with rice, and the week after, cold Mexican salmon pasta.
This was what happened in the Stirling area between April and June this year as the Salmon Scotland “Salmon in Schools” project went live.
For 10 weeks, salmon was on the menu once a week at six of the seven secondary schools in the area. The aim was not just to find out if it could be done, but whether it could be scaled up to the whole country and how the students would react to salmon on the menu.
Well, thanks to SAMS Enterprise (the consultancy arm of the Scottish Association of Marine Science) and the Rowett Institute at the University of Aberdeen, we now have the results.
The headline conclusions are clear: about 750 salmon meals were sold over the course of the project and the most popular dishes were salmon with spicy noodles, cold pasta and fried rice.
But, crucially, of those who tried the salmon, three quarters (74%) said they would eat salmon more often if these dishes were offered at school more often.
From a broad, strategic view, this suggests the scheme has been a success. The project has introduced students to a locally sourced, healthy food and, if taken further, many more children will get the chance to up their intake of salmon and get a healthier diet.
However, there were some other, really important, lessons that we learned during the project.
There is still a negative view of school meals in general. Many pupils bring packed lunches in with them while many others nip out for fast-food alternatives.
At a stroke, this negative impression of school meals removes a huge number of pupils, all of whom could have had the chance to try the salmon meals had they joined the queue for lunch in the canteen.
If school meals in general could be made more appealing, across the board, then the take-up of salmon could rise significantly.
What seems baffling, particularly to those – like me – of an older generation brought up on some pretty poor school meals years ago, is that this impression persists even when modern school meals are so good.
I can’t understand why anyone would want to go into town for a pie and chips when there is salmon with lime and ginger noodles on the menu or salmon in batter with a sweet and sour sauce; but that, I suppose, is our challenge.
What was also clear was that it really matters what the alternatives are. Putting salmon up against firm favourites like pizza or hotdogs depressed the uptake significantly, even if cost was similar. In fact, the fewer the choices on offer, the more salmon was consumed.
Spreading the word
Working with the team from Stirling Council, we did a lot of work to try to inform and educate about salmon, why it is healthy and why it was being offered in this pilot project. We produced a video explaining where the fish come from, why they are good nutritionally and how to prepare them. We also produced an email leaflet and handed out hard copy versions in the schools.
Yet very little of this information managed to penetrate. Indeed, only 16% of the students surveyed actually registered that the pilot project was taking place. Of these, one in five did talk about the project with their parents at home, but that represented only about 3% of the overall student body.
So the challenge for us, as we go forward, is to make sure we produce material that the students register, absorb and share. It is not an insurmountable problem but one that will definitely have to be addressed as this initiative gets rolled out further.
What the project has done, though, is provide us – and others, in government and elsewhere – with a really good database of seafood-eating habits and trends among the young.
Almost 1,000 young people completed the initial survey linked to the project and a further 500 plus completed the second survey, providing a really strong survey base of information.
One of the least surprising, but most depressing, results from the survey was that it is the children from the most deprived areas – those who have the biggest need for healthy food – who have the worst access to nutritious seafood.
What we found was not only that pupils from the most deprived areas were eating the least fish but fewer believed fish was a healthy choice.
Less than half the school children from deprived areas eat fish, significantly down from the two thirds of those in more well-off areas who eat fish. As one of the key reasons given for eating fish was “my parents make me eat fish”, perhaps this is understandable but it is still something we, and government agencies, are keen to address.
Everyone involved in the sector knows the trend of seafood consumption is going down.
The aim of this project was to introduce a new generation to the benefits and experience of eating fish. If this project worked, then the idea has always been to see if it could be rolled out further.
Even if it turned out to have converted just a small number of children, it would do something – however modest – to arrest that decline.
We found that it did work – but we still have a lot to do if we are to take it further. We need to make the educational material more accessible; somehow, we need to make school meals more attractive to fast-food alternatives and packed lunches, and we need to be aware of what else is on the menu.
But can we deliver good, nutritious, healthy, locally sourced produce to our public sector institutions? Absolutely.
This was a small step, but a very important one, and what all of us in this project want to be able to do, is to look back in a few years’ time, when salmon is on the menu, every week, in every school in Scotland and say – it was worth it.