Can greener, locally-sourced school dinners enhance learning skills?
In Denmark, the revolutionary New Nordic Diet isn't just offered in gourmet restaurants. Noma-style menus are now being offered to schoolchildren. The Danes are triailing a geographically-specific diet – a world first.
Soups made from artichokes, celeriac and parsnips. Wild venison patties served with florets of cauliflower. Old-fashioned apple cake served with rye bread soldiers: what sounds like the menu of an upscale restaurant is in fact a meal plan for the trial phase of a Danish dietary research project that, if it makes the grade, could radically alter the way Denmark approaches school dinners - and hopefully other European countries, too.
In order to research whether a greener, locally-sourced diet can improve concentration and learning, Danish schoolchildren have been taste-testing the 'New Nordic Diet', a new meal system that Scandinavian nutritionists believe could overtake the Mediterranean Diet in terms of health and ecological benefits. For a six-month period ending this April, the University of Copenhagen's Faculty of Life Sciences OPUS research project has moved its kitchen team into school canteens across Denmark. Reminiscent of Jamie Oliver's revolutionary 2005 school dinners project in the UK, the dishes have one crucial added ingredient: just as in award-winning Copenhagen restaurant noma, all food served in the trial is made entirely from seasonal produce sourced from the Nordic region.
In its use of scientific methods to study a geographically-specific diet, the trial is the first of its kind in the world.
Flying in the face of trends for more exotic and unusual fruit and veggies, the focus is on unfashionable root vegetables like the Jerusalem artichoke, beetroot and celeriac, along with the lowly leek, carrot and parsnip, as well as in fruit like pears, apples and on regional berries and nuts.
It's a culinary mix that has had the world's food critics in a feeding frenzy; yet satisfying the notoriously fussy palettes of the nation's school children has been a whole other matter.
The New Nordic Diet is the research-based offshoot of the New Nordic Cuisine movement launched – complete with manifesto - at the start of the millennium by pioneers Claus Meyer and René Redzepi, co-owners of noma, to describe the uniquely Scandinavian, seasonal cuisine of their restaurant.
Not that New Nordic Cuisine should be confused with Danish eating habits in general. Surprisingly for a nation so connected with the sea, most Danes prefer their fish pre-filleted and fried in breadcrumbs. Pre-made meatballs and powdered, 'just add milk and butter' sauces are supermarket bestsellers. New Nordic Cuisine, with its rediscovery of locally indigenous berries and grains is thus a radical rather than logical move, especially as its launch came at a time when foreign food stuffs like pita bread, olive oil and pasta were gaining in popularity throughout Denmark. Despite this, the movement has made strides in the international media, with noma booked up months in advance, a yearly food festival, Copenhagen Cooking, every August, and food guru Claus Meyer's recent opening of the more grassroots Restaurant Radio in Copenhagen.
Bringing the meals into Denmark's public schools was the next, radical step – school kids are notorious for being fussier than a Michelin guide reviewer. Begun last September, the trial comprised three months on the New Nordic Diet and a three-month control period with the standard packed lunches using children aged between eight and 10 years from various schools across the country as its test subjects. After being assessed by the research team, the results of the New Nordic Diet will be published at the end of the project in 2013.
Jane Graham relocated from Yorkshire to Denmark 12 years ago. Amazingly with four children, she finds time to write and consult for a number of guidebooks and publications, including a regular blog for travelogue NileGuide. A long-term vegetarian, she endorses ecology wherever possible.