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Students say school menu is their chance to make a difference

Valentin von Schoenburg and Edith Felmingham serve on the refectory committee at Gordonstoun School.
Valentin von Schoenburg and Edith Felmingham serve on the refectory committee at Gordonstoun School.

Did you ever dream of having a chat with school lunch staff about the taste, texture or colour of the food on offer?

That dream is a reality for the students on Gordonstoun School’s refectory committee, whose relationship with the catering team has created award-winning school meals that are paying dividends for themselves and their classmates.

The Elgin boarding school recently won an award at the Talk Education Awards for Innovation in Education 2022, beating competition from England and Dubai in the ‘Innovation in Nutrition’ category.

Now, they’re up for two more honours – Healthy Living Innovation and Education Wellbeing – at the inaugural Scottish School Food Awards.

School menu lets students make a difference

At Gordonstoun, the majority of students live on campus seven days a week. That means that school meals aren’t just about what’s for lunch, with the option of bringing a packed lunch if nothing suits.

Instead, Gordonstoun staff serve up meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Catering staff said creating a menu is about balancing nutrition with a taste of home.

Meals like Sunday roasts provide a taste of home for students at Gordonstoun School
Meals like Sunday roasts provide a taste of home for students at Gordonstoun School. Supplied by Tessa Lumley

And if you ask the students, they’ll tell you that having their say – and being heard – makes school feel like home.

Favourites with a healthy twist

Gordonstoun’s catering manager Jamie Campbell said that, in order to keep students engaged and meet their needs, the menu has to be flexible.

And it’s important to keep in mind that meals at a boarding school are different from a standard day school, he said.

“This is their home, and they don’t just get one meal and then go home. So it’s important that they feel like they’re still getting some of those favourites.

“Because even things like fish and chips, southern fried chicken and things like that, they have got a certain amount of nutrients which are important for a young person to get while they’re growing up.”

Jamie Campbell, catering manager at Gordonstoun School, takes feedback from students to build an award-winning menu. Supplied by Tessa Lumley

And there’s always room to be flexible without sacrificing favourites. For example, staff might serve fish and chips with sweet potato instead of regular fries. And instead of deep frying, oven baking provides a healthier alternative.

School meals at Gordonstoun intentional, not overbearing

Dubbed the phased learning menu, the school’s approach is catered towards supporting Gordonstoun’s active campus life. That means more Omega-3s and vitamins to help with memory and focus during exam time. And it means focussing on energy-giving nutrients that won’t drag you down during a rugby match or sailing excursion.

Menu choices are intentional and they are meant to give students what they need on a day-to-day basis.

One of the biggest recent changes is a firm commitment to fresh, local produce, Mr Campbell said. Given the number of meals served at a school like Gordonstoun, that’s no small promise.

“For a school the size that we are and with how many meals we do a week, to commit to buying fresh vegetables for the amount of meals we do in a single mealtime, it’s a lot of work. But we’ve committed to that.

“You can definitely tell the difference in what you’re eating, from the colour of the vegetables to the taste.”

Making room for every diet

There has also been a revolution in how the school caters to its vegans, vegetarians and students with other dietary restrictions and choices.

Mr Campbell said: “At Gordonstoun, it’s very important that whatever we are giving them, that they get enough protein and nutrients in their body. But it’s also important that we give them the choice.

“It’s completely up to the students what they pick at lunch. So we try to educate, when possible, but it falls to the students to make that decision of what they are going to pick and have for lunch.

“If we provide them with the information and the choice, then nine times out of 10 they’re all very good at doing that.”

The salad bar at Gordonstoun is well-stocked and always a popular choice for students. Supplied by Tessa Lumley

And students on campus are noticing a difference, according to Edith Felmingham, a Year 13 student who serves on the Refectory Committee.

“There’s been a really, really big improvement, especially because I’m a vegetarian. The vegetarian options are really good with lots of sources of protein like lentils, which is really helpful to get a balanced diet.

“It used to be quite difficult because it used to be a lot of carbohydrates and less protein. But over the last couple of years, I’ve seen a lot of improvement.”

Food flexibility for busy students

Edith’s classmate and fellow committee member Valentin von Schoenburg said that he sees his committee service as a way to make his school a better place.

Meal items aren’t set in stone, and he said it’s important to him to be able to give feedback.

Paella, one of the Gordonstoun School meals
Chicken and chorizo paella is one of the favourites on offer to students at Gordonstoun. Supplied by Tessa Lumley

“I was very keen that if I’m going to be here at school for a long time, then I want to make an impact on what we’re eating and how it improves. That’s what joining the refectory committee means, because we have feedback and then changes happen. They’ll actually take into account the feedback from the student houses.”

And Edith said that students don’t hold back when giving their opinions.

“Within the committee there are representatives from every single house, and they get feedback – really honest feedback – from their house that honestly does make a difference.

“This way everyone can be happy.”

Feedback is positive, not personal

Still, Mr Campbell said that it can be difficult to hear when his hard work doesn’t go down well with students.

“It’s difficult to hear negative feedback on food that you’ve maybe spent a lot of time preparing or you thought the kids were going to like. But you have to remember that this is an international school, where there are a lot of different dishes and cultures.

Banh mi is one of the many popular Gordonstoun School meals
Tastes of different world cuisines, such as a Vietnamese banh mi, are important staples at an international school like Gordonstoun. Supplied by Tessa Lumley

“We try to be sensitive to different cultures so that they feel like they’re at home and don’t always feel like they’re in a foreign country.”

Home away from home

To Edith, deciding what meals look like at Gordonstoun helps the school feel more like home.

“It’s really nice being a part of the big decisions in the refectory and giving feedback to Jamie.

“You can see your feedback going into effect.”

And Valentin said that, even without the free menu samples, the refectory committee would be his favourite role at the school because of the chance to make a difference.

“After weeks of tweaking the menu and helping with suggestions, if you sit down at lunch and someone complains about the food, you find yourself being protective of it!

“It actually makes you feel like you have an impact. It’s not like we make a suggestion and it goes away. Essentially, we’re in there and part of making these decisions.”

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