Jeanette Orrey, School Meals Policy Advisor to the Soil Association

"My vision is that every child has a right to good wholesome school food and that food poverty will be a thing of the past."

Jeanette OrreyJeanette’s achievements and guidance were central to the success of the Food for Life campaign and an inspiration for Jamie Oliver’s fight to improve school meals. Her life has been a whirlwind of training, lecturing, meetings with ministers and, of course, awards ceremonies. She has received recognition of her work from, amongst others, Radio 4's The Food Programme’ (2003); The Observer (2004); Good Housekeeping (2005) and the Guild of Food Writers (2006) for her book ‘The Dinner Lady’. Jeanette is also director of training at Ashlyns Organic Farm’s school for dinner ladies in Essex which she helped to set up and was opened by Jamie Oliver in 2005.

Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you ‘went organic’?

In 2000 we took our catering in-house at St Peters Primary School, sourcing as much local and organic produce as possible within a very tight budget. I did this because at the time of the BSE crisis many of my friends are farmers and they were struggling. I also wanted to feed the children in the best way I possibly could; the more I learnt about food and its production the more I realised organic is the way forward.

Can you describe a typical day in your life?

Mad! I can be anywhere in the country at a school or conference either talking about or listening to the school meal debate.

Who are your customers and where are they?

Children…all over the country.

Organic principles – why do they matter?

We all need principles. They matter for animal welfare, education and showing people just how cheap food is and at what cost to the planet as a whole.  

What does the Soil Association mean to you?

I believe the Soil Association shows the way forward and for me personally it means a great deal.

What is your greatest achievement?

Changing people’s perception of school food and how hard the catering staff within a school work. Also Food for Life and what is has become.

How do you plan to progress in the future? What is your vision?

That every child has a right to good wholesome school food and that food poverty will be a thing of the past.

If you were starting all over again, what would you do differently?

Nothing.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

To go where your destiny takes you and never stop learning.

Who or what’s your biggest inspiration?

My boss!

What do you love most about what you do?

Seeing children eating what they have grown or cooked and having the understanding of where their food has come from.

What keeps you awake at night?

Ideas going around in my head.

What single thing would most improve your life?

Time management.

What do you find most frustrating about what you do?

People paying lip service and not getting to the root cause.

Any unusual hobbies or past careers?

Watching rugby union when I get the time, in my past life I was Chairperson of the mini and youth section of Newark Rugby Club and am now a Vice President.

How can the organic market be improved?

Staying with our beliefs.

How can we get more people to buy organic?

Education.

What’s the main benefit of being organic for you?

Knowing where my food comes from and how it is produced.

What other organic ventures do you admire and why?

The small producers who never give up on their beliefs.

What is the biggest threat to what you do?

People taking a small part of Food for Life and not looking at the whole approach. We always said at St Peters, “What is taught in the dining room is also taught in the classroom”. There are no quick wins to this problem and today people want fast results.

What’s the best thing about organic farms?

Openness and honesty.

What’s the best thing about organic food?

Knowing that you are paying a true price for your food. Organic food does take longer to grow and produce therefore it has to cost more.

What is your favourite meal?

Lobster.

If I was Prime Minister I would...

Listen to the public.

The world would be a better place if...

People talked to each other over a good meal.

I’d like to be remembered for...

Making a difference.

When were you happiest?

Cooking for the children.

What is your greatest fear?

Failure and the demise of the school meal.

What is your favourite word?

Honesty.

What would be your ‘Desert Island’ luxury?

Books.

Is the customer always right?

My customers have always been children and no they are not always right. We educate them to make informed choices but at the end of the day sometimes making a mistake is how you learn and move on.

Find out more about the Food for Life Partnership at www.foodforlife.org.uk.



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Meet more heroes...

Simon Bennett of Riverside Organics in Cheshire
"So many people have no idea what 'organic' means, or they think it is fancy! If they knew how food was produced most people would choose organic."
Roger and Penny Webber of Hindon Organic Farm, Exmoor
"Organic principles gave us back our pride in farming; they protect the soil, the animals and us for the future. Profit at any cost is not sustainable, but we all profit from organic."
Christopher Dawson of Clearspring in West London
"The sustainability of any endeavour or concept depends on organic principles, yin and yang, movement and rest. The same applies to agriculture. No rules, no game."
Vanessa Warn of Little Green Rascals Organic Day Nursery in York
"We need to respect the land in terms of what we put in to be assured of good stuff coming out for our children and their children."
Sebastian Pole of Pukka Herbs in Bristol
"We have always been 100% certified organic with the Soil Association because we felt strongly that we did not want to try and improve people's health but damage the planet's in the process. So an organic business was the only way."
Paul Richards of herbfarmacy in Herefordshire
"We learned as we went along and all believed the organic approach to be the only way forward that respects the planet we live on."
Wilma and David Finlay of Cream o' Galloway in Dumfries and Galloway
"We have a business to run but we also believe that we have a duty of care for our community, our animals and our environment."
Angus and Shoo Oliphant of Miniscoff Organic Children's Meals in Wiltshire
"Natural is good, but organic is natural certified, so it's more controlled. Most other claims are far too prone to abuse and shameless spin."
Dr Paul Benham of Primrose Organic Centre in Wales
"I arrived at the bare field of Primrose farm in 1985, gained the Soil Association symbol in 1986 and began farming organically to assess whether I could disprove the view of the time that organics could not achieve high output or superior quality."...
Henry Edmunds of Cholderton Estate in Wiltshire
"We have achieved a balance between the demands of modern highly competitive agriculture and the preservation of the countryside."