Wednesday 13 February 2013

Chain chain chain, chain of fooooood

<with apologies to Aretha Franklin>

OK, somewhat off the breakfast topic today, but something I care passionately about. Food in schools. You may remember that a few months ago I blogged about the idea of putting domestic science back into the National Curriculum, so I was delighted this week to see that the government is planning to do just that. We'll have to wait and see just what it means in practice - how many schools still have the facilities for pupils to cook, for example, and how will teachers be trained to implement this part of the curriculum - I don't imagine there are many Domestic Science specialists these days? I would LOVE to see something like the wonderful Edible Schoolyard project in the US. Alice Waters' work is truly inspirational - children grow their own food, and cook it, and in the process learn about history (how people grew their own crops in the past, the Silk Road and the spices that have come to us along it), geography (where ingredients come from, what people eat in other countries), biology (how plants grow, how they decompose), maths (weighing, measuring etc), you name it. The benefits of working outdoors, especially for children in very urban areas are obvious, and the responsibility of looking after plants and tending the garden, clearing up the kitchen, and the social benefits of serving and eating food together are all great life lessons too. This holistic approach to food education is so exciting and sensible and I really wish that something similar could be brought in here - that would be a legacy to be proud of Mr Gove.

I'm much less happy about the accompanying proposal to ban packed lunches. In theory, I can appreciate where this policy is coming from. Far too many children are sent to school with nutritionally empty lunchboxes full of crisps, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks, and this is something that needs to be addressed, but I'm not at all sure that a blanket ban on packed lunches is the best way to achieve this. School lunches in our authority cost £1.20 a day, and I think that in most places they cost no more than £2.00 a day. This includes a starter of some sort (which I don't think many children take), a choice of two hot meals, two cold meals (sandwiches, usually), a pudding, and a choice of drinks - milk, flavoured milk, juice etc. This seems pretty standard too. On the face of it, that looks like a pretty good deal, doesn't it? Well, yes, but what about the quality of that food? Youngest breakfastboy used to love macaroni cheese, but was presented at his school induction with a plate of something that I wouldn't feed to a dog - pasta in a congealed sauce, overcooked and really really horrid, and has refused to touch it since at home or at school. So thanks for that South Lanarkshire Council. And of course this week there are all sorts of more sinister question marks over what exactly is in the penne bolognese that is being dished up to our children. I don't object to horse meat per se, but the questions raised over food safety are very serious (horse painkiller anyone?), and the lack of transparency is very alarming. I'm afraid that I have some concerns about meat that is this cheap.

There's also an astonishing and depressing amount of waste. At a recent Parent Council meeting at our school, one of the teachers mentioned that she was surprised that so many children chose fish and chips on a Friday because she didn't think most children were keen on fish. 'They aren't', said the deputy head. 'Most of them eat the chips and throw the fish in the bin'. So, you may think that your child is getting a nice well-balanced meal, but the only way of actually knowing that for sure is to send them with a packed lunch (they bring back anything they haven't eaten so I can see if smallest breakfastboy has eaten his carrot sticks).

When I was at school, we went to the canteen and were presented with lunch. One main course, one pudding. Sure, there were things that I loathed (the thought of macaroni pudding still makes me shudder all these years later), but none of it scarred me for life, and I feel sure I was a less picky eater than my children. The local authority claim that it is all about 'encouraging children to make healthy choices', but how healthy is the choice of fish and chips without the fish, or strawberry milk rather than plain milk, or lasagne that contains meat of a rather dubious provenance? And is a four-year-old really in a position to make those healthy choices effectively? I'm not at all sure that s/he is. In the meantime, I think I would prefer to send my children to school, if I choose to do so, with a packed lunch containing food that I've prepared, where I feel confident about the food it contains.

So, what's the solution? I'm not sure, but I do feel that before we start insiting that all children eat school lunches, we need to look at the quality of what we are serving up and at the astonishing amount of waste: I'm not sure if anyone has calculated how much food waste schools produce, but I'd be really interested to see the figures. If schools are looking to save money (and this seems to be one of the aims of this policy - to increase take-up of meals and therefore make more money), then here's the place to start, I'd suggest. Personally, I'd prefer a much more limited menu of a higher quality. I wouldn't offer my children a choice of four meals at dinner time, and I don't really understand why it's so important to do so at lunchtime, allergies and other medical conditions aside.

As for how to ensure that packed lunches contain nutritionally valuable food, I think that is a more tricky issue to solve. I know that school policing of packed lunches is controversial, and I'm not sure that I agree with it - parents really do have to take responsibility for their own children, and I've seen stories of some very strange decisions by schools. But is it possible to make sure that children are not penalised for their parents' decisions about food? I don't have the answer.


  1. I have mixed feelings about the recent announcements on food in schools too. Our nursery food is pretty good, and my 3yr old eats most things they give her - often things she'll refuse at home probably because everyone else eats it. But at school they don't supervise closely and report back what kids eat everyday!! I'd probably opt for packed lunches. I'm not convinced banning packed lunch thing is a great idea. Or maybe their ulterior motive is to create much greater pressure from parents to improve the school meals - rather than providing that pressure themselves? Who knows quite what they're thinking!

    1. Yes, I always suspect that there is some sort of financial reason behind it all, although the idea of encouraging parent pressure hadn't occurred to me - I suppose that wouldn't be a bad thing. We can choose on a day-to-day basis whether to have school lunches or packed lunches, which I like.

  2. I'm so excited you found the Edible School Yard project. I used to live in Oakland (just outside Berkeley) and volunteered at the MLK garden.

    I completely agree with you about pack lunches. When my little foxes started school they took pack lunches. As we are all prone to eczema both my children have had wheat and dairy introduced into their diets very slowly. As a result their pack lunches were not sandwiches and painfully nutritious. As someone who loves to eat, particularly the twin delights of cheese and chocolate, I did not enjoy being a food nazi.

    My daughter begged to have school dinners. She wants to be like her friends and she has a good/healthy/diverse appetite so I let her. But, I know that I don't want to know exactly what she is eating. And I know I am sticking my head in the sand saying that. *sigh*

    1. Wow - so envious of you working at the MLK garden. I've been following their work for a couple of years now and am constantly amazed by what they've acheived. Is it as good as it seems at a distance?

      And I hear you on the ostrich routine. I'm also guilty of that. I do let them have school lunches a couple of days a week but I just *know* that they never go near the veggies or the soup.