School tuckshops embrace healthy options as sweet and sour chicken dish named recipe of the year

Two female primary school students sit at playground bench sharing a meal

There is one thing that has stood the test of time at the Dalby South State School tuckshop, and that’s the brown paper bag meals are delivered in.

Everything else has changedβ€”for the better.

“I’m glad to see the end of cream buns,” tuckshop convenor Raelene Akers says.

The small school on Queensland’s Darling Downs is celebrating this week after the $4 flagship of the tuckshop β€” sweet and sour chicken with rice β€” beat out all the other tuckshop recipes in the state to claim the Queensland Association of School Tuckshops (QAST) recipe of the year award.

A sweet and sour chicken meal in a plastic container
Raelene Akers’s sweet and sour chicken dish took out the QAST recipe of the year award.(Supplied: Qld Association of School Tuckshops)

Ms Akers takes her job seriously. She arrives at school every morning at 7:30.

“There’s a lot of planning because we want the kids to stay healthy,” she says.

“During winter we have pumpkin soup, spaghetti bolognese, lasagna, and corn on the cob.”

She is a big fan of hearty meals.

“It helps settle those kids from one break to the next break because the teachers have enough to deal with without having kids who are disrupting in a classroom because they’re hungry,” Ms Akers says.

Once seen as the domain of pies and sausage rolls, the school tuckshop has become a more common option for busy parents, according to QAST senior project officer Deanne Wooden.

“We know from a survey done in New South Wales in 2015, around 4 per cent of primary school students eat from the tuckshop three to five days a week,” she says.

“In the high school setting, we’ve got around 15 per cent of students eating from the tuckshop three to five times a week.

“And we also know that kids consume between 35 and 40 per cent of their energy, or kilojoules, from what they eat at school.

“So it’s actually very important for those kids that are heavy users of the school tuckshop there is a healthy menu available to them.”

A woman in a tuckshop kitchen puts a meal into a brown bag
Raelene Akers is the tuckshop convenor at Dalby South State School.(ABC Southern Qld: Peter Gunders)

Back in the kitchen, the main topic of conversation is the need for more volunteers.

“We need people to come in and help prepare the food and help serve the kids,” she says.

What makes a good tuckshop volunteer?

“Anyone who can put stickers on a bag, and tomato sauce into that bag,” Ms Akers says.

“It’s not a hard job at all.”

Advice for lunch-box packers

While Ms Akers is quick to point out she is not the “lunch-box police” and will not tell parents what they “should” be feeding their children, she does have some pointers for people packing a lunch box.

“Healthy choices are always good,” she says.

“Not so much cakes and chips, and definitely more fruit and yoghurt.”

But there is one consolation the tuckshop convenor made during the great lettuce shortage of 2022.

While some fast-food companies replaced lettuce with cabbage, you could still find the proper ingredients at Dalby South State School.

“We understood farmers were struggling because of the floods, and they were entitled to that price rise,” she says.

“And…I don’t expect kids to eat cabbage,” she laughs. “That’s a bridge too far!”

Ms Akers is now preparing her summer menu and views tuckshops as a service to the school community.

That includes feeding the teachers.

“They put their daily orders into the tuckshop, and I’ve even had a lot of teachers asking for my recipes!” she says.

And if you want to try Raelene Akers’ sweet and sour chicken yourself, the tuckshop convenor shares her secret.

“I will fry the chicken; not deep fried β€” but just to brown it off.”

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