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Food & Drink Hero: Stephanie Hayman

PUBLISHED: 15:58 16 March 2014 | UPDATED: 15:58 16 March 2014

Food & Drink Hero Stephanie Hayman

Food & Drink Hero Stephanie Hayman

Rikard Osterlund

Meet the school meals champion from Deal

Long before Jamie Oliver had made us all sit up and take notice of the state of school dinners in the UK, Stephanie Hayman had her own very real concerns – and wasn’t afraid to voice them.

Showing the forward thinking that made her our natural choice to receive the first Kent Life and Kent on Sunday Food & Drink Hero Award, Stephanie’s journey began when her son Harry started primary school.

“I wanted him to have a hot meal at lunchtime, but the menus weren’t very inspiring,” she tells me over coffee in Deal.

“I knew about the health risks of eating hydrogenated vegetable oil as early as the mid 1990s because I’d spent a lot of time travelling to America – and they are way ahead of the game – and knew that trans fats are very undesirable in the diet.”

Stephanie wrote to the caterers and asked to be informed which of their pre-processed products on the school lunch menu contained hydrogenated vegetable oils, because she just wanted to advise her son to choose the alternative.

“The response was ‘if your son needs a special diet, please go to your doctor and get a certificate’ – which in other words was a ‘no.’ My blood was boiling and I thought ‘you’re not fit to be providing a service that has a significant impact on our children’s health at school – that’s not right’.”

Harry stopped having school dinners, 
his mum became a parent governor and when the school meals contract came up for re-tender, Stephanie recommended that the school (part of a contract of 21 others 
in East Kent) should take it on in-house.

“I could see the potential of using seasonal fresh produce and supporting local suppliers,” she says. “This was 2004, before Jamie was doing his thing. I’d bang on about trans fats and people would just glaze over, it was so different back then.

“Then Jamie Oliver exposed the truth behind school meals and all of a sudden the scales dropped from people’s eyes. That’s when I started to be heard.”

This was the start of a whole new change of direction for Stephanie, who grew up 
in Deal, studied social psychology at LSE and had a career in social housing before becoming a mum in her thirties and moving back to Deal, where her mother still lives.

Settling in Walmer, she did a Masters 
in Information Systems at Christchurch University and worked part time at South Kent College teaching business and IT.

Now the self-confessed ‘meat and two veg, basic sort of cook’ has a very different life, beginning with that first letter as a concerned mum and swiftly leading to the creation of Whole School Meals C.I.C in 2005. This was born out of her idea to create a company that all 21 schools in 
the contract collectively owned, serving the school community in East Kent.

Directors were appointed, Julia Hallett (herself an ex-school kitchen assistant) 
was made ceo, a bid was put in and to their surprise, they heard in April 2006 that they’d won and started serving school meals that September. Whole School Meals is a social enterprise, with 75 per cent of the company owned by the group of schools 
it serves in East Kent, which means that 
the schools control the company.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. “We spent two years lurching from one cashflow crisis to another,” admits Stephanie.

But sales gradually went up, after two years they broke even, after three they made a small profit and could start new initiatives, such as taster sessions for the parents. Whole School Meals now turns over more than £1m, 3,000 children are being fed every day and there are 25 schools in the group, all shareholders in the company.

School meals are today only one part 
of Stephanie’s remit and after success in setting up classes teaching children to cook, thanks to funding from the Big Lottery, she turned her attention to adults.

By that stage she had got to know South African chef Pieter van Zyl, owner of local restaurant The Chequers and knew that they shared similar food values.

Together they started Keen2Cook, at that time a six-week course for people who were low income and disadvantaged. The next step was to create a cookery school at The Chequers that, alongside the restaurant, would generate enough income to enable them to continue the subsidised lessons.

Last summer they created Cinque Ports Community Kitchens, a community interest company that rents The Chequers from Pieter. They spent from April to December running the restaurant, getting some money in the bank to finance the refurbishment. This was in full swing at the time of my visit, and by the tine you read this the relaunch should have taken place.

With the former large bar now removed they have been able to add a cooking island big enough for 12 people to use at a time.

The restaurant will open from Thursday to Sunday for lunch and dinner and the rest of the time will be available for cookery classes. Some will be workshops, classes and demos that people will pay to attend, but the subsidised Keen2 Cook classes will also be held there; they place in local halls with kitchens while the work was ongoing.

“From September the curriculum will require all children must be able to cook five meals by the time they leave primary school,” says Stephanie. “We’re hoping to that schools can come here and actually 
do some of the learning with us.” n


Whole School Meals C.I.C.

Almond House, Broad Lane

Betteshanger, nr Deal CT14 0LX

01304 611010

The Chequers

Golf Road, Deal CT14 6RG

01304 362288

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