Waitrose & Partners Weekend Issue 584

2 13 J ANUARY 202 2 NEWS&VIEWS Taking a f lexible approach to food Mealtimes are a carefully crafted pleasure at a London school for autistic children – Anna-Marie Julyan finds out why It’s lunchtime at Kensington Queensmill School and children tuck into plates of chicken or vegetable curry with naan bread and rice alongside roasted courgette and red onion. Others have pasta with a side dish of chopped tomato and cucumber, or sandwiches. One boy eats a bowl of breadsticks; another a dish of orange slices. The variety of what’s on o er and what the children choose is striking. This is Kensington and Chelsea’s first dedicated school for children with autism and learning di culties. It opened in September with 55 children aged from three to 19, all with complex needs and a complicated relationship with food. In the UK, one in 100 people are on the autism spectrumand there are around 700,000 autistic adults and children. Many will know someone with the condition, or come into contact with it on a daily basis, so what happens at The Queensmill Trust – two oversubscribed specialist schools including the original Queensmill in Shepherd’s Bush and an additional college for 19-year-olds who have graduated – is an example worth studying. The head chef is Djalma Lucio Polli de Carvalho – known as Lucio – who won an Observer Food Monthly outstanding achievement award in 2015 for his school meals. He is the ultimate example of what people like Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith have campaigned for, and when you see and taste the food, it’s not hard to understand why Lucio won his award. At the servery there’s a colourful array of options – little gem salad tossed with chilli and avocado, another with new potato and smokedmackerel, brown rice, white rice, curries, homemade chilli sauce, beef pho, pillowy naan, roasted vegetables, fresh fruit… the list goes on. “My food is always made fresh and hot, not cooked at 9am,” says Lucio. “I try to introduce the children to as much as possible. It might take time for some, but it’s there for them to explore.” He relies on a team, some froma che ng background, others not, saying: “I look for people who have a little bit of finesse.” “Lucio knows everyone’s special arrangements and is curious to find out what else theymight try,” explains The Queensmill Trust schools’ executive head Freddie Adu. Splitting from their local authority school meal service in 2013 to go it alone with a chef was ‘a brave step’, but one they don’t regret. The flexible approach Lucio takes – servingmeat separately from the sauce if that’s what’s requested, or producing a bowl of hot chips for a child who won’t eat anything else – is key, according to Caroline Bulmer, therapies and family support manager at The Queensmill Trust. “For somany of our children, food has a significant impact on their day-to-day learning and life at school,” she says. “A great deal of children with autismhave a restricted diet, often linked to their sensory processing which impacts how they cope with and manage di erent tastes and textures. There are the demands of themealtime as well – the social demands, the smells; if you are hyper-sensitive to sensory information then mealtimes are often really challenging.” The Trust’s approach to school dinners could also be seen as a beacon for all children. The variety on o er has made a noticeable di erence at next-door mainstream school Barlby Primary, which has shared the same kitchen since the building opened in September. Uptake of school meals has increased 15% and children aremore focused on their learning in the afternoons, according to Barlby headteacher AnthonyMannix. Autism is a neuro-developmental condition diagnosed on the basis of behaviour, typically di culties in social interaction and communication. Many autistic children and adults have highly focused interests, and over or under-sensitivity to light, sound or touch. Diagnosis is three times more common in boys than girls, both due to ‘I try to introduce children to as much food as possible. It might take time for some, but it’s there for them to explore’ ALL SMILES Younes discovering more about di erent foods (right); Dion and Mehret in a group session (below right); vegetable curry with naan bread (below) Cover photography: Tom Regester, Getty Images