Stephen Jardine: One school dinner that’s a real class act

Jim Fairlie's annual dinner educates children about food. Picture: Donald Macleod
Jim Fairlie's annual dinner educates children about food. Picture: Donald Macleod
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School dinners were never like this. In the grand surroundings of the Scone Palace on Thursday night, pupils from Perth High School queued up for food. Only they weren’t the ones eating. Instead they were serving forty guests at one of the most innovative food education events in Scotland, writes Stephen Jardine

Launched five years ago, the annual dinner is the brainchild of Perthshire farmer and former High School pupil, Jim Fairlie. He wanted to create something that gave youngsters a sense of where their food comes from. Together with Home Economics department head Mahri Dinning, he drew up a plan to introduce youngsters to local produce while at the same time, opening their eyes to potential jobs in the hospitality sector. The first dinner was a low-key, small-scale affair but now Scone Palace throws open its doors to add to the sense of occasion. This year, I was lucky enough to be the guest speaker. Thanks to support from local suppliers, the menu featured great Perthshire produce including beef and pheasant cooked and served by 23 hospitality Intermediate 2 pupils who a year ago probably hadn’t even boiled an egg. It was a privilege to be part of it and to see the youngsters rise to the occasion.

“l started the project after working to get local food into public procurement contracts for school meals”. Jim Fairlie told me afterwards. “It was pointless battling for local foods to be on their plates if the recipients didn’t understand the significance of it and that’s what the creation and delivery of the dinner is all about”.

Last week, a mile along the road in Perth Concert Hall, the cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment Richard Lochhead pledged £2 million over three years to try to ensure every Scottish school child understands more about the food they eat and how it impacts on their health and the environment. That’s an admirable commitment but classroom teaching isn’t enough.

What’s needed are more initiatives like the Perth High School project to really connect children to where our food comes from and where it is going. These are the schemes we need to encourage and spread because they engage and inspire our young people and give them confidence. Produce is nothing without the people to grow it, cook it and serve it to the public.

One of the guests the other night was a former pupil who had served at an earlier dinner. She is now pursuing a career inspired by her experience. That one story justifies the entire exercise.

There is no point in having some of the best produce in the world unless we have young people who see the food business as a good career choice. Every school in Scotland should examine what they can learn from the Perth experiment. The risks are small and the rewards are huge.