Exterminate the Sparrows

Contents Our Memories Food, (In)Glorious Food Exterminate the Sparrows


Residents of Peel no doubt have their own opinions of the blast-freeze (or, officially, cook-freeze) unit which hides within that mysterious, uncompromisingly austere building just across from the M.D.H.  It was their unfortunate lot to have to trail 200 yards for their scrambled eggs and Weetabix on dank and dreary winter mornings whilst their house kitchen was converted to accommodate the steady stream of frozen and dried foods which now pours into it from the unit - dry goods come once a week, frozen goods come twice a week, and perishables like bread, milk, fruit and salad vegetables arrive every day.

Rumours and questions about the place have been rife since last September: What's inside the mysterious packing cases? Who are the men in the white coats? How old do you think this food really is? What secrets lurk behind the blank exterior which is the cook-freeze unit? The cavilling started as soon as the system was underway: understandable complaints from the poor unfortunates wearing out their shoe leather on the long trek to M.D.H.; shrill cries of "Less eggs, less grease, more custard, please," rang out with a host of other 'cris de coeur' - "There isn't enough here to feed a sparrow at the M.D.H., let alone me," was a memorable comment.

Such a furore does not often ruffle the calm surface of life at Wymondham College. And interest didn't even stop here, for on March 30th of this year representatives from various national newspapers and magazines descended upon us to have a look at what was going on. We members of the magazine committee, avid, as ever, for news or sensation, decided to investigate the source of all the controversy. We 'boldly went where no man had gone before', and on May 9th succeeded in penetrating to within the inner confines of the cook-freeze unit itself and discovering the truth of things. Below we record our findings.

The Facts

We were met on our arrival by Mrs. Saunderson, whose job it is to supervise the organization of all meals arrangements on the site. She plans the menus, trying to ensure that the 163 different items produced do not recur too frequently (which means that she has to plan our meals well over a month before we eat them, making sure that they come up to standards set by the Department of Education and Science, and order the food about four weeks in advance).

We were slightly alarmed when Mrs. Saunderson informed us that we couldn't set foot across the threshhold of the kitchen before we'd donned regulation white overalls and caps to prevent our out-door germs from contaminating the food, but nothing daunted, we dressed up and, feeling like a team of surgeons, went in.

We might well have been in an operating theatre. Inside, the very walls, white-tiled from floor to ceiling, gleamed, and the work surfaces of stainless steel shone. The only things to remind us we were in a kitchen were the aroma of 140 Ibs. of lamb and tomato casserole which we were later to be shown simmering gently in two of the multi-purpose Bratt pans, and the sight of a group of pastry cooks in one corner preparing over 120 latticed jam tarts, "to be eaten in three weeks time," we were informed. Over in another corner the bread baker was waiting to take out another batch of the 1,600 bread rolls he makes for the college every day (at a saving of 1p per roll over shop prices).

We walked round to the main entrance and our tour began. The food, we were told, follows exactly the same progress through the building as we were about to. It literally comes in at one end and goes out at the other, after being prepared, cooked, portioned, frozen, sealed, labelled and stored in the freezer for up to three weeks. First we saw the three storage rooms to which it is sent before the process begins - the chill store, the dry goods store and the vegetable store. Meat, it was emphasised, is separated from everything else and whisked straight through for immediate cooking to minimise the possibility of contamination.

Next we watched in awe as vast quantities of food were cooked, and we learnt, to our astonishment, that the twelve members of staff at the unit produce 3,000 meals a day between them. Further on, the pastry makers we had watched earlier were lining tins with the pastry they'd made, following detailed specifications about quantities and numbers. Over on the other side of the room a new operation had begun. Here enormous roasts of meat were being sliced and portioned prior to freezing. Quantities are measured exactly (to the gramme) to ensure that required standard levels of proteins and calories are maintained.

In the freezer tunnel, which we saw next, various items were being subjected to temperatures so cold that a human being would only last about ten minutes inside before dying of exposure. It takes 90 minutes to freeze meats rock hard, and only 40 minutes for rolls. From the tunnel the food is quickly wrapped and labelled and then stored at -20C until it's needed, whereupon it goes in sealed containers to the 'finishing kitchens' in the houses where it is defrosted, reheated and made ready for presentation. Here the final touches are added - sauces are made, cakes are decorated, garnishes are added.

After our tour we had the chance to ask Mrs. Saunderson questions and we learnt, for instance, that conversion to the system has saved more than 800 staff hours a week (or over 50,000 a year), and that the college now functions with 30 less kitchen staff than previously. Mrs. Saunderson stressed, however, that this had not meant anybody losing his job, merely that staff leaving or retiring have not been replaced. We wondered why it had been decided to convert to the new system in the first place and not merely to rebuild the M.D.H. (originally condemned in 1973), and continue as we had been doing. Mrs. Saunderson offered various convincing reasons for this: there were the economic ones just mentioned; more efficient methods of distributing food and controlling quality are available when there is a central production area; coping with extra meals, or with meals for holiday courses is made easier, since they can be prepared well in advance with no last minute rush; there are opportunities for giving kitchen staff more regular hours and holidays under the new system.

One of the facts which surprised us most of all was that the amount of money available to Mrs. Saunderson (or to any school meals organizer) per head for the food for lunch is only 16p. As she said, when we asked her about the general feeling we had detected that quantities had gone down, 16p doesn't go far at today's prices. Mrs Saunderson felt that things had gone well in the first year, and that many of the initial teething troubles were disappearing. We decided that we would go on from her and sound out the opinions of the other people involved in the new system, of the pupils and the staff who eat the food, and of the house kitchen staff who complete its preparation, before returning to her with our new information.

The Feelings

We started our survey with pupils and teaching staff. Some of you may have completed or at least seen the questionnaire distributed in the spring, asking for opinions on cook-freezing, on the food itself and on the new dining arrangements. Each of the questions offered the opportunity to express opinion on whether things had improved, deteriorated, or remained much the same. The results were analysed from a sample of 230 which we divided into two main groups: those from 'converted' houses (those which had had the chance to experience the system fully operational) and those from 'non-converted' houses. We further sub-divided to compare reactions from boarding as opposed to day pupils.

In converted houses 63% of the sample felt that the general standard of food had improved, and another 30% felt that it had at least remained as it was. In the non-converted houses the response was less favourable, but still only 20% felt that there had been a drop in standards. More specifically, however, 52% of boarders and 42% of day pupils felt that vegetables had deteriorated in the non-converted houses and a third of pupils in the converted houses were of the same opinion.

When asked whether they thought the new methods of preparing the food had affected the standards, again the most positive response came from converted houses where 60% said they thought the new methods had raised the standard; and, as before again, it was the day pupils who felt this most strongly - 68% of them were of this opinion. Once more it was the standard of vegetables that came in for most criticism. This was a feeling reinforced by the comments made in those questions which offered the sample the opportunity to make constructive remarks about methods. A number of people voiced dislike of dried potatoes and of the wateriness of the vegetables generally. Nevertheless, quite clearly, a favourable reaction was registered.

Questions about the quantities of food available, on the other hand, produced a distinctly unfavourable response. Over 60% of boarders in general believed they were getting less food, although it must be said that over 40% of the day pupils felt that quantities at lunch-time had gone up.

As far as lunch-time arrangements were concerned we found a very positive response. Over 90% of pupils in converted houses said they appreciated the choice offered at lunch-time, and 81 % said they found choices varied enough. Understandably in the non-converted houses, where the full choice has not yet been available, the response was less positive, 71 % said that the choice raised their enjoyment of the meal, and 45% found the choices varied enough (even though they were being offered only two out of three choices). The cafeteria system was found to be appreciated, although many people felt that queueing was tiresome. Interestingly, no one year group was appreciably more critcal of the queueing arrangements than any other in the free-comment questions about arrangements.

The last section of the questionnaire was directed at boarders only, and opinions about breakfasts and teas were very similar in both converted and non-converted houses. Over 50% of the sample felt that breakfasts had definitely improved (and roughly 25% were of the opinion that they had at least remained as good as in the past), but over 50% said they thought the evening meal had deteriorated.

Overall, then, the consumers' response was a favourable one. Obviously some areas were felt to be in need of improvement (the boarders' evening meals vegetables, for instance) but many were felt to be either already improved or at least, not deteriorated. Significantly, more of the people in converted houses had noticed a definite improvement in both quality and preparation compared with those who have not yet experienced the system working fully. The discomforts of the conversion process seem worth putting up with.

When we spoke to some of the staff in the house kitchens however we were shown another aspect of the subject. All the kitchen staff we saw felt'that the new system was less satisfactory to work with than the old one, although they agreed that having an extra day off was an advantage. Many of them felt that the creativity of their jobs had been reduced because, as they saw it all they were employed to do now was to reheat and dish out food that had already been prepared elsewhere. We mentioned this to Mrs. Saunderson when we spoke to her again. She felt that to a certain extent the staff in the kitchens were voicing a reaction against the new system because they have had to make radical adjustments. The re-training of staff was one of the major problems Mrs Saunderson felt. She was confident, however, that the adjustments were being made, despite the fact that she has had the opportunity to release only one of the staff for the month long period of official retraining which is felt to be necessary for staff coming into the system.

One of the problems that became apparent to the committee as we conducted our enquiry was that of communications. In some instances we felt there was insufficient understanding by one group of people of what another group was trying to achieve. Mrs. Saunderson made the point herself that when she visited the houses to talk to pupils and assess their reactions in the early days there was quite clearly a lack of understanding of the difficulties involved in conversion to the new methods. Perhaps the feelings of the kitchen staff might have something to do with the fact that they sometimes feel caught in the cross-fire between the people producing the food, and the people consuming it. One of the things Mrs. Saunderson hoped to achieve in the future was a more sensitive method of assessing reaction from within the school. We hope that this article will be one of the first steps towards promoting this end.

On the whole we feel that we must register a vote of confidence in the new system. We have been impressed by what we've seen at the blast-freeze unit and gratified at the positive response we recorded in our questionnaire. Many of the problems are sorting themselves out. If the changes that have taken place have not been fast or radical enough to satisfy the person who cried "Exterminate the sparrows at the M.D.H." on his questionnaire, perhaps he will be pleased to see that they're being gradually phased out.

THE MAGAZINE COMMITTEE.


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