Essex farm chips in for healthier school food

Ruth Kelly’s school junk food ban couldn’t have come at a better time for Essex-based Ashlyn’s Organics.

The company’s ambitious Feeding Our Future project is supplying local produce to Essex schools, as well as training catering staff through its purpose-built training kitchen.

“The aim is to help schools interested in doing their catering in-house to provide healthy, tasty, nutritious meals,” says Gary Stokes, Ashlyn’s organic business development manager.

To this end, he has recruited Jeanette Orrey, a former school dinner lady and author of the best-seller The Dinner Lady, and chef Simon Owen, who had previously worked on Jamie Oliver’s school dinners project.

As a result, the team offers two-day practical training courses, as well as a consultancy service covering nutritional guidelines, budgeting, food safety and environmental health.

The kitchen can also act as a preparation area for the washing and peeling of vegetables, reducing the time needed in a school kitchen.

Although the 610ha (1500 acre) farm at High Laver produces over 40 different types of organic vegetables, as well as having a Lincoln Red suckler herd, rare breed Essex pigs and 500 laying Black Rock hens, a grower co-operative is being set up with the help of Abacus Organics to ensure continuity of supply.

“It means that we can all grow to our strengths,” says Mr Stokes. “We’re on heavy Essex clay, so there are some crops which are very difficult for us to produce.”

Ashlyn’s is also working with a local hospital and has just started a three-month pilot project with a care home. The grower co-operative has plans to supply other food service outlets in the region.