Did the food puritans who co-opted a young girl’s school-dinners blog for their cause even bother to read it?
‘Martha Payne, I salute you’, said a gushing writer in the Guardian last Friday. ‘This nine-year-old has won a victory for child activists everywhere. A few hours ago she was allowed to reinstate her blog on school dinners as her local council performed a screeching u-turn on its call to censor her. National media agencies rejoiced and the Twittersphere is still beaming. Hopefully the experience won’t just make her a stronger activist, it will inspire a generation of young bloggers to follow suit.’
Such language, as overcooked as a Turkey Twizzler left in a microwave for half an hour, seems rather typical of the discussion around one young girl’s school-blogging exercise. Young Martha, from the small town of Lochgilphead in a rural part of Scotland’s west coast, started a simple school project: to photograph her school lunch every day, write a little comment about it and give it scores for tastiness and healthiness plus size (in the official international unit of ‘mouthfuls’), number of courses, price and the number of hairs in it (!).
But on Thursday 14 June, Martha’s headteacher told her that she could not take photos of her lunches anymore. Her father, Dave, subsequently learned that the decision had come from Argyll and Bute Council rather than from the school which, he said, had been ‘brilliant and supportive from the beginning’. By Friday lunchtime, council leader Roddy McCuish was grovelling on BBC Radio 4’s The World At One, declaring there was no place for censorship and announcing on air that the ban had been lifted.
Martha never seems to have envisaged her blog as a piece of school-meals activism, just an interesting educational project and a way to talk to the outside world. Far from ripping back the veil to reveal the evil truth about school meals, what the blog really revealed is that - for the most part - Martha actually likes her school food.
So her first post - the image of which has featured widely in press coverage - looks a bit disappointing: a slice of unappetising pizza, a potato croquette and what looks like a fairy cake or muffin. ‘The pizza in the first pic was alright but I’d have enjoyed more than 1 croquet. I’m a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I cant do it on 1 croquette. Do any of you think you could?’ This rather measly meal gets a rather measly six out of 10 from our young critic.
But this isn’t really typical. Subsequent posts feature carrot and coriander soup followed by mince pasta; Mexican chicken fajita; sausages with roast potatoes and a small amount of salad; and macaroni cheese with mashed potato and salad, plus jelly for dessert. While not exactly haute cuisine, the food is really not bad at all.
After a few days of blogging, Martha started posting pictures of school meals around the world sent in by readers getting into the spirit of her blog. A regular riff is Martha’s dad asking her to find these weird and wonderful places on a globe. ‘Today I have been sent lots of photos from America. This one was sent in by Kimberley who works in the Glenview school district, near Chicago, Illinois. Dad timed me to find Chicago on the globe and it took me 48 seconds but it was not fair as I was looking for it spelt SHicargo.’
All in all, Martha seems like a nice, unaffected and intelligent nine-year-old girl who has suddenly become the centre of media attention, even before the cack-handed censorship incident. Her local council’s act of petty censorship was an overreaction to a perfectly fluffy piece in a Scottish tabloid, the Daily Record, featuring Martha’s trip to meet celebrity chef Nick Nairn. But commentators’ reaction to this short-lived ban make it look like it was some kind of vicious clampdown rather than what it was: public-relations bungling.
In Wired magazine, Maryn McKenna sobbed: ‘For the past two months, one of my favorite reads has been Never Seconds, a blog started by nine-year-old Martha Payne of western Scotland to document the unappealing, non-nutritious lunches she was being served in her public primary school… Goodbye to all that.’ If McKenna had read the blog, instead of projecting her prejudices on to it, she might have noticed that Martha seemed to find the food perfectly appealing most of the time, thanks very much. Her main complaint seems to have been that sometimes there wasn’t enough of it, not that it was unpalatable.
Yet McKenna continues: ‘We anguish about getting kids to be enthusiastic about healthy, sustainable food — to not prefer the bad stuff, not waste the good stuff, and not be entitled little monsters who whine about when their next chicken nugget is arriving. And then a child emerges who, out of her own creativity and curiosity, does all of that, and gets other children around the world excited about doing it too. And then she gets told she is offending the powers that be, and is slapped down.’ Sustainable? McKenna seems to be dishing up large helpings of her own outlook here, not Martha’s.
Martha’s school meals seem absolutely fine, if occasionally a bit on the small side. Her lunches certainly compare very favourably with what was dished up to me in the Seventies and Eighties when we supposedly had ‘proper’ school meals. One troubling thing, perhaps, is that it should seem so natural to a little girl that her school project should be about food. In these instrumentalist times, it would appear that every school lesson has to be hooked off some kind of wider moral issue, usually obesity or climate change. It would be nice if schools could focus on something more uplifting rather than constantly inculcating such obsessions into their pupils.
But much more troubling is the way adults seem so willing to take ownership of a little girl in order to make points about the evils of modern food. Suddenly we learned that Jamie Oliver was ‘leading the public backlash’, that there was to be a school-meals summit to which Martha was invited, and that the local council leader who banned and then unbanned Martha’s blog would be meeting Martha and her father at the earliest opportunity. What a circus! A little girl writing a school-lunch diary is turned into a ‘child activist’ who does ‘important work’. What? Revealing to the world that the chicken curry at school is ‘fantastic’?
To the family’s credit, they have batted away many of the more ludicrous offers directed at them - like chatshow appearances in America and even talk of film rights - while a fundraising link on Martha’s blog has provided funds to build a school kitchen in Malawi. Hopefully, Martha will have got exactly what was hoped for - an enlightening educational experience and the opportunity to communicate with people around the world. Now, let all the attention die down and allow young Miss Payne to get back to the serious business of being a little girl.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.