Florey Primary School canteen manager, Jackie Thornton. Photo: Graham Tidy
Her Italian heritage has given Jackie Thornton a love of good food and fiery determination. And she has needed both in spades to turn around the ailing fortunes of the Florey Primary School canteen.
Over the 15 months Ms Thornton has been canteen manager, not only has the canteen managed to stay afloat financially - albeit, only just - it is one of the first in the ACT that has a menu close to being declared completely free of ''red'' foods, or those fatty, salty and sugar-laden processed foods that are not recommended under the international traffic light rating system adopted by the ACT government.
Giralang Primary has also largely weeded out its ''red'' food offerings and both schools are to be formally recognised for their achievements by Nutrition Australia later in the year.
At Florey, Ms Thornton has devised a menu that crams in as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible.
Incentives to ''go green'' include meal deals that include salads and fruit and children who choose green for five days get a bonus slushy (made from 99 per cent apple juice and 1 per cent natural flavouring of their choice).
On weekends and school holidays, Ms Thornton can be found in her work space - chopping, cooking and freezing portions of vegetarian fried rice or penne boscaiola.
As one third of Florey Primary enrolments are from non-English speaking backgrounds, Ms Thornton offers a variety of foods, including several halal options.
School principal Felicity Bruce said there were ''educational benefits in supporting families and students with the healthy diet that the canteen offers because avoiding the 'red' foods helps students be more settled in the classroom''.
Before October 2011, the canteen had been closed for five years, children accessing a limited range of snacks and sandwiches from a nearby high school. Staffing the canteen from parent volunteers and making enough money to cover costs was beyond Florey's ability.
But now, in the shaded inner courtyard, the canteen has become a beacon for hungry children, Ms Thornton enlisting them to adorn the previously drab brick walls with murals of fresh fruit and vegetables and running a student competition to come up with the name ''the Snack Shack''.
''It's been really important to get the kids involved and help them feel some ownership of it,'' she said.
Senior students can volunteer in the canteen at lunchtime, giving them work experience, improved confidence and a reference from Ms Thornton when they are done.
Ms Thornton's determination to bring the canteen back to life started because of her daughter Trinity - ''because every kid should be able to have a canteen which provides them with good food and I just thought it was weird not to have one''.
She has stayed on as the canteen manager even though Trinity has moved from the school.
While there is enormous pride in the school becoming a nutritional stand-out, Ms Thornton is the first to say it continues to be a huge battle.
She still frets about every dollar and sourcing the best ingredients she can afford. Her profit margins are only at the break-even point and the school's P&C has had to contribute $10,000 to help with set up costs.
Ms Thornton believes healthy food takes time, effort and money and the job cannot be done on volunteer efforts alone. There was too much financial pressure to cover the canteen manager's wage and set up costs were often prohibitive.
She said the best way to improve the standards of canteen food was for the ACT government to subsidise canteen managers for all schools.
''If it was up to me, I would ask that they pay the wages for canteen managers,'' she said. ''They pay for administrative staff and front office staff, so if they want better nutrition in schools then they should help pay for it.''