When she watched Jamie Oliver driving a healthy eating bus around the country on television one evening, Belinda King had a brainwave. What if, thought the headteacher, we had our own version in the school playground?
King, who is originally from Australia, has been the head of Kobi Nazrul Primary in the heart of Whitechapel in London’s East End since 2015. The school is in the borough of Tower Hamlets, which has the UK’s second-highest rates of childhood obesity.
“When I started at Kobi Nazrul, I saw children being dropped off at school at 8am, with younger siblings in prams drinking cans of Coke,” she says. “Some of the children were bringing in boxes of cold fried chicken or a whole packet of biscuits, for their snack.
“It’s easy to judge, but we’re in one of the most deprived boroughs in the country. Most of the children are living in flats without gardens, or even balconies.
"There are no parks around here, and the little green space that exists is rife with crime, so parents can’t let their young children play outside. Many families are placed in shared accommodation, sharing kitchens with other tenants.
"I’ve had to go to court on behalf of families who are living in cold, damp flats and their children have severe asthma.
“We have a wonderful bunch of parents at this school who try their best, but when you’re facing certain challenges it can seem cheaper and easier to take short cuts, like buying cheap food high in sugar, salt and fat.”
However, unlike Jamie Oliver, who had parents trying to thwart his attempts to get pupils to eat healthier by passing McDonald’s through the school gates to their children, King got an altogether different response from her parents.
“After seeing the Jamie Oliver show, the healthy cooking bus became a big dream of mine. I started talking about it to staff and pupils, and it went from being this crazy idea to something we felt we could actually do.”
King was told about Wooden Spoon, a charity that aims to transform the lives of children and young people facing disadvantage across the UK.
This year, the 36-year-old charity, which hands out around £1.3 million each year to projects, is being supported by The Telegraph’s Christmas Charity Appeal.
“I looked at the Wooden Spoon website, filled out an application and waited,” remembers King. “In May 2017 I half-joked, ‘If I don’t manage to get a bus onto this playground within 12 months, I’m resigning’.
"On a chilly morning in February 2018 the bus, which I had found on eBay for £2,000, drove from Wiltshire, through the winding city streets, before breaking down just outside the playground gates! I had to wait for the neighbouring mosque to finish their prayers, and then I recruited a group of locals to help me push it onto the playground.”
Along with the bus, which sits at the back of the playground, the donation from Wooden Spoon enabled King to turn an area in front of it into a healthy living area.
Led by a team from Fusion Community Initiatives, 25 volunteers worked tirelessly to get it ready in just one day.
“It was like an episode of Changing Rooms,” says King. “The children’s eyes lit up when they first saw the bus, which is painted with their own drawings that were then replicated onto the bus by a local painter. The grass at the front of the bus was, for some pupils, the first grass they’d ever felt under their feet.”
The upstairs of the bus is dedicated to healthy minds, and the downstairs to healthy bodies. Upstairs is a quiet, beanbag and book-filled space where children with sensory needs or autism can enjoy time out from the bustle of the playground.
Downstairs has been turned into a diner-style eating area and kitchen, where fresh toast (donated by the local Greggs) and breakfast is made and served to children attending a breakfast club. Local businesses donated planters where pupils grow herbs, spices, lettuces, potatoes, tomatoes and pumpkins.
“We had an overflowing pumpkin patch last month, grown by the children. The school chef turned them into a delicious pumpkin curry,” says King.
A plaque outside the new area reads proudly Vicky’s Place, a dedication to Vicky Adepeju, the school’s much-loved chef who worked at Kobi Nazrul for 20 years, until her death last year.
Healthy cookery classes are held in the bus and the children in Year 3 have produced a recipe book, combining traditional Bangladeshi family recipes with ones they’ve learnt at school.
“We also run workshops for parents on healthy living and hold ‘Farmers’ Markets’ in the playground, where we give away extra crop, like herbs, to parents,” says King.
“Our children love the creative process of cooking, but the biggest change I’ve seen is in their improved levels of concentration, learning and energy in the classroom.
“But I hope the real legacy of the bus will be seen long after the children leave here: I want them to go through life knowing how to make good choices for their health and knowing that people really care about them. Because the other legacy of the bus is the generosity of spirit shown by Wooden Spoon. Thank goodness for good people trying to do good things.”
To make a donation to this year's Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal, please visit telegraph.co.uk/charity or call 0151 284 1927