A school dinners recipe that’s hard to swallow
Politicians are naive to think that meddling with children’s food can solve social problems.
Yesterday, ministers announced details of new standards for school meals, which will come into force in January 2015. Among the new rules, fried food may only be served twice a week, but vegetables every day, reduced fat milk once a day, and fruit juice restricted to a small serving. Henry Dimbleby, the restaurateur who led the school meals review, told the BBC that the rules would “protect children from the worst excesses of modern food”.
Few would disagree with the notion that pupils should have access to good quality food during the day. Manchester was the first local authority to provide a free lunch for poor children back in 1879, when there was genuine malnutrition in British cities. While the 1921 Education Act spelled out when school meals should be offered, cost constraints meant that as late as 1936 only 2.7 per cent of children received them. It was the Second World War that created the real impulse for “feeding centres”. Provision of school meals became compulsory for local authorities after the 1944 Education Act, and school milk was added in 1946.
By the late Sixties, however, the need for school lunches was being called into question. As education secretary in the Heath government, Margaret Thatcher oversaw the withdrawal of school milk from secondary schools, though she was apparently opposed to the decision. School pupils sick of drinking bottles of unrefrigerated milk no doubt approved. In the Eighties, the school meals service gradually started to unwind. It was only really with the uproar over Channel 4’s crusading series, Jamie’s School Dinners, in 2005 that politicians got interested in school food again, with Tony Blair promising millions of pounds to revive the service.
Giving pupils meals seems a civilised thing to do. Providing a pleasant environment to eat that meal in, and encouraging children to behave appropriately when eating and to try new foods is also good. But the tone of the current debate is dispiriting. The provision of lunches – and breakfast clubs and after-school clubs – can be a boon to hard-working parents. Yet underpinning what should be a healthy, cooperative relationship between schools and parents is an assumption that the state must step in to protect children from feckless adults who will not feed their children properly.
Parents should be free to decide what is best for their children and their household incomes. School meals, even when subsidised, can be expensive if you have two or more children to pay for. Children can be fussy eaters, too. For these reasons and many more, parents often choose to provide a packed lunch for their offspring instead of sending them to the school canteen. Yet the result can be letters home from the school or even exclusion of children for eating the “wrong” foods, creating pointless antagonism between parents and teachers.
Even worse have been suggestions that school meals should be made compulsory. Parents, it seems, are not to be trusted with their children’s welfare. After his crusading TV series, Jamie Oliver declared that parents who don’t feed their children according to his ideas were “tossers”, dismissing their efforts with the observation that packed lunches “are the biggest evil. Even the best packed lunch is a s—- packed lunch.”
Such overwrought claims are the product of the enormous importance now being placed on children’s food. Policy-makers have variously claimed that better school meals can help solve the obesity crisis, make pupils brighter and improve behaviour. In fact, childhood obesity rates have been going down in recent years, while the idea that it is food, not good teaching, that will improve educational standards seems a slap in the face to teachers and those who plan the school curriculum. Children are more than the product of their biochemical inputs.
We should also be wary of the details of such school-meal standards themselves. For instance, fruit juice was once regarded as an easy way to get children to consume some vitamin C. Now, with the raging War on Sugar, our children must have such treats strictly limited. Chips – popular, cheap and nutritious – are regarded as dangerous by the couscous-munching classes; salt, essential to flavour, is treated as toxic. Milk, until recently regarded as a source of heart-clogging dairy fat, is back in vogue.
Providing school meals is a good idea, but they can never solve the multitude of social and health problems their proponents suggest they can. By creating a paternalistic and mistrusting relationship between parents and teachers, school-food rules dreamt up by politicians and their allies can be positively harmful.A school dinners recipe that’s hard to swallow, Daily Telegraph