On 19th March 1991, Debbie Barton walked into the kitchens of Storey Primary School, which she had attended as a young girl. This was the start of a long and impressive career in school catering; a career which to date has seen many changes for her. Our managing director Michael Hales spoke to Debbie at length recently, as she celebrated 30 years working in school meals in Newham.
Let’s start by looking back on your career and hearing about your current situation.
The last time I had been at Storey Primary School was at the age of 11. It was funny that when I went back to work there some of the staff remembered me as a child. Although unfortunately, they recollected that I was always on the naughty step.
After gaining further experience at Rosetta Primary School, I was approached by one of the area catering managers who encouraged me to take my cookery skills further at Manor Primary School. I have been there ever since and continue to love it every day. Over the last 30 years, I have probably cooked around two million meals for the young people of Newham.
Although I am currently shielding at home, I am itching to get back into the kitchen with my great team. As well as my catering role, I also clean daily at Vicarage Primary School. This is a job I took on to help make ends meet following the loss of my husband and I miss everyone so much. It is not much fun being at home on your own during the pandemic. However, I have been able to stay connected with, and have the support of, my three children and ten grandchildren.
Tell us why you love school catering
It was Irene Smith, the cook at Storey Primary who taught me the skills to kick-start my career. My area manager then inspired me to move up the ladder and I have always been grateful to them both as I am able to do a job I love. This is a job that I look forward to going to each day and I have a great team in the kitchen to support me; we achieve a lot each day feeding the children.
The style of food has changed over the years with a move to healthier dishes and baking, rather than frying food. There’s now more fresh produce and we have moved away from some of the dessert favourites like caramel tart, Manchester tart and cake and custards.
How was the transition from being employed by the local authority to working for Juniper?
It was very smooth, and I’ll be honest there was a sense of relief when the team and I were paid for the first time. I feel valued and involved in the business working for Juniper, with the area meetings and support from my area manager, Trevor. For example, I loved playing a part in choosing the new uniforms. I feel like I belong to a good caring company. It’s also been great to see an improvement in the foods being offered to the children with them being much healthier with a greater choice.
Thankfully, I have a great relationship with Kate, the headteacher at Manor Primary School. We discuss the menu carefully together, based on the school food guidelines compliant template sent out from Juniper’s menu development team. Together we finalise the menu to make sure every child is getting food they will enjoy with the chance to have different taste experiences with the new choices developed each menu cycle.
So, what about the next 30 years Debbie?
Well, I would like to think I am able to still be doing what I do now as I love it so very much and I am sure we will see even more changes. I just love going to work each day and feeding all the pupils. For some it is their only hot meal and having been at Manor Primary School for so long I am now feeding the children of pupils I fed years ago. It won’t be long, before I will be feeding their grandchildren too.
A word from her school
The headteacher at Manor Primary School, Kate McGee told us: “Debbie is a valued member of the Manor School team. She knows all of the children and the staff very well, and always has a smile and a comment for them. She works hard to ensure that she is serving up tasty and nutritious meals whilst also trying to encourage the children to try new things. 30 years is an amazing achievement, and she has been with us for over 25 of those years! I would like to thank her for all her hard work, and the commitment that she has towards Manor.”
After the call Michael Hales said: “I loved catching up with Debbie and reminiscing about her 30 years in school meals. We reflected on the time the ITN news team visited Manor Primary as part of the coverage around Universal Infant Free School Meals and the Mayor’s Eat for Free Scheme across Newham. This was the night Debbie and her team became global TV stars! Thank you and congratulations to Debbie for her service to date from everyone at Juniper. Here is to the next 30 years!”