Someone should make a reality TV show called Tuckshop Ladies. The drama would be explosive. Elimination episodes would take place at Parents &Citizens’ Association (P & C) meetings, where parents and tuckshop convenors would battle it out in the style of the Jerry Springer Show. In one episode, the entire tuckshop staff would be made redundant; in another, an irate parent would hurl abuse at the new tuckshop convenor for taking pies off the menu. The stakes would be high – some tuckshops have annual profit margins of $500,000. There would be tears, award ceremonies and, of course, cooking.
Well, at least there should be cooking. Cindy Donald, the P & C operations manager at North Lakes State College, runs an operation so slick it was named Queensland’s Tuckshop of the Year (P–12) in 2009. But when Cindy started working here two years ago – right after the P & C laid off all its previous staff – there were hardly any facilities for heating food. “We had one tiny little oven and about six pie warmers,” Cindy recalls. “A pie warmer is not ideal. It doesn’t maintain the right heat, so you’ve got bacteria that can cause problems with food poisoning.” Even worse, the tuckshop was operating at a loss, which was quite humiliating, given that North Lakes is the largest public school in the state.
Two years later, the tuckshop isn’t even a ‘tuckshop’ anymore. It’s become acafe, split over three locations, for early-, middle- and senior-school students. Last year, the cafe donated a cool $400,000 from profits back into the school. With the money, North Lakes has bought air conditioners for classrooms, built new playgrounds and allocated money to ensure the school’s chaplain is on site five days per week. The cafe has also invested in new equipment for itself: Cindy proudly shows me the new commercial ovens – industrial-strength chrome beasts so large you could jam small barnyard animals into them. Soon, senior students will have sofas and an internet cafe. Parents can order school lunches online; there are EFTPOS facilities. It resembles no tuckshop I’ve ever seen.
“It’s a business,” Cindy says. “It is a profession. I’m a qualified professional” – she holds hospitality and hotel qualifications from South Africa – “and I hate being referred to as a ‘tuckshop lady’. The saggy arms! There is money to be made in it.” Cindy is right: in Queensland alone, school tuckshops rake in roughly $154 million in sales per year.
Chris Ogden, the head of the Queensland Association of School Tuckshops, says a lot of tuckshops struggle to strike the right balance between making a profit and providing cheap, healthy food. “They’re trying to raise money to put computers into schools and to purchase worthwhile resources for children,” she says. “So in some cases, there’s pressure on tuckshop convenors to make money, rather than provide a really great service.”
One of the big problems is staffing. If a tuckshop relies predominantly on volunteers, it saves money by not paying wages. But volunteers mightn’t know how to draft a business plan, prepare food hygienically or organise a cash flow, so the tuckshop may haemorrhage money in other ways. Volunteers are notoriously unreliable and mightn’t show up for shifts; most don’t have wider hospitality experience, so are likely to gravitate towards selling pre-packaged and frozen foods, which are less time-consuming to prepare, but also fattier.
At 8.30 am, Cindy puts me on volunteer duty alongside her cafe staff, who are all paid workers. We prepare lean chicken burgers, and low-fat cookies and nachos. Like most Australian tuckshops, the menu is guided by a traffic-light system: red foods (chocolates, soft drinks, anything deep-fried) are banned; amber foods (low-fat pies, oven-baked wedges, sorbet) are OK in moderation; and green foods (vegetables, grains, cereals, low-fat dairy) dominate. In Queensland, the policy is called Smart Choices, and most states have similar programs, with names such as Fresh Tastes (New South Wales), Go For Your Life (Victoria), Right Bite (South Australia) and Healthy Food and Drink (Western Australia).
You won’t find pies on the menu at North Lakes. Some have lobbied to have Smart Choices-compliant pies served at the cafe but Cindy is against them. “There have been times where I’ve been accused of—” She trails off, trying to be diplomatic. “Being un-Australian?” I ask. She laughs, calling herself a “damn migrant” in her South African accent. Then she tells me the story of a P & C meeting where parents argued that Cindy was forcing them to go elsewhere to buy pies for their kids. They said the North Lakes menu was too healthy and insisted their kids wouldn’t eat anything from it. Why wouldn’t North Lakes just stock the amber-light low-fat pie? “Children won’t know that a low-fat pie bought at our tuckshop isn’t the same as a high-fat pie bought elsewhere,” Cindy says. “We’ve got a captive audience here. Let’s teach them.”
As a result of this thinking, the cafe menu is mostly a field of green (salad wraps, lasagne with salad) with some patches of amber (fish fingers, iceblocks). Yet I notice they do stock the controversial canned drink LOL, Golden Circle’s youth-targeted carbonated fruit drink, which has been criticised by some nutritionists for containing too much sugar. Marketing experts say the drink, packaged in a slim can, dangerously resembles an energy drink and that its winking smiley-face logo is visual shorthand for the drug ecstasy.
But maybe that’s taking the hand-wringing too far. In any case, there are lean burgers to wrap and amber-coded cookies to bake. As I watch the all-female staff dish out salads and curries, I can see why this fresh-food approach mightn’t work for every school tuckshop. It takes time and effort to create meals from raw ingredients, and North Lakes has the luxury of resources other schools lack. Both Cindy and Chris are firm advocates of food being cooked from scratch in tuckshops across the board, though. “The nice thing is you know exactly what you’re putting into it,” Cindy says. Chris adds that this approach needn’t compromise profits, either. After all, she points out happily, when you prepare food from raw materials, “you can put quite a large mark-up on it”.