School meals – get real

The real scandal is the government’s unwholesome attitude to parents.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

British school dinners are a scandal. And no, I’m not talking about the composition of a turkey twizzler, or the tiny amount of money spent on each meal, or the frequency with which chips appear on the menu, or any of the other nuggets of information that have been listed in mind-boggling detail by the government and the media. I am talking about the scandal of a government that thinks it should turn education into one long lecture about healthy living, and assumes the authority to dictate how parents should feed their children.

The publication of the final report of the School Meals Review Panel (SMRP), set up in May 2005 by the government following a TV series by Islington’s favourite semi-literate entrepreneur Jamie Oliver, should come as no surprise. The panel, chaired by Suzi Leather (who also chairs the authority responsible for regulating fertility treatment), has concluded that school dinners are every bit as bad as Jamie said, and that Something Must Be Done to sort it out (1).

To that end, its 59-page document demands that unhealthy vending machines be banned, along with salt-cellars on tables, and foods made from ‘meat slurry’; that deep-fried foods should only be served twice a week; and that children spend more lesson times learning how to cook and visiting local farms to find out ‘where some of their food is produced’. There’s more, of course – the panel has even seen fit to provide an age-appropriate weekly menu, fitting for a government that is rapidly moving from politics into catering management.

But the devil is not in the detail of this document. It is in the assumption underpinning it: that parents cannot be trusted when it comes to feeding their children.

For many parents, the government’s sudden declaration of war on school dinners must have seemed like a welcome release. The government has spent a good few years scaring us about our children becoming caught up in the epidemic of childhood obesity that is apparently sweeping the nation. We have been issued with a rule book demanding that our families eat ‘five a day’ of carefully measured portions of fruit and vegetables, witnessed calls to ban advertising of so-called ‘junk food’ to help us stop from caving in to children pestering us to put the wrong things in our shopping trolley, and been the focus of mad-cap traffic-light schemes to ‘help’ those of us who don’t know that crisps are high in fat to avoid them.

In the government’s ill-advised war on unhealthy living, parents have been treated both as idiot victims of the food industry and careless child abusers who put our own convenience before our children’s health. So when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver turned the spotlight on to school dinners, the one aspect of our children’s diets for which we surely can’t be blamed, we could scramble back on to the moral high ground, at least for a short while. How dare they make us feel guilty for serving fish fingers again when they’re giving our children those twizzlers! It’s not our fault the kids are podgy – look at what they’re having to eat in school! No wonder young Jamie became too popular for his own good – he got a nation of parents out of the firing line, and put politicians and local authorities there instead.

But just as Jamie’s crusade was obsessed with school dinners because of his conviction that the canteen was the only place that kids could expect some decent food, the government’s School Meals Review Panel situates improvement in school dinners firmly within a context of making every member of society behave in a healthier fashion. ‘What children receive at home will always be more important than what they eat at school’, states the report early on. ‘But the school is crucial for modelling healthier choices and schools are a vital setting.’

In other words, get the kids out of that feckless home environment where they are allowed to eat and drink anything they like, and into an institution where they can have their choices ‘constructively controlled’. ‘We concluded that it is by constructively controlling choice that we will widen children’s food experiences’, stated the panel – or as the Department for Education and Skills’ (DfES) press release more succinctly put it, ‘controlling children’s choices to ensure that they cannot opt out of healthy food’ (2).

This is the politics of behaviour. It has nothing to do with nutrition: as Rob Lyons has argued elsewhere on spiked, the wild assertions made by officials about the problem of child obesity and the nutritional characteristics of ‘junk food’ are based on very dubious science (see Fat chance of making kids healthier, by Rob Lyons). Nor is this reform of school dinners about a humane desire to make eating at school that little bit more pleasant. It is about pushing children to think about food in a particular way, bringing about a ‘healthier food culture, in which young people and adults enjoy the experience of eating healthy, nutritious food together’.

Unless anybody thinks that this business of ‘controlled choice’ will be limited to the canteen, the School Meals Review Panel is keen to stress that its standards should be ‘applied to other food outlets within the school and reflected in school policies for food brought into school’ – through ‘consideration of the impact of packed lunches’ and a ‘review’ of ‘the nature of breaktime snacks brought from home’. So those naughty parents will no longer be able to ‘opt out of healthy food’ by squirreling a packet of crisps in their child’s lunchbox. And to avoid the (obvious) consequence of banning food that children like – that they go and buy food elsewhere – schools may simply stop them from leaving the premises at lunchtime.

Do these people really think that the problem of childhood obesity, insofar as it exists, can be solved by treating a child’s breaktime chocolate bar like poison, and forcing them only to drink water with their meals? Do they really believe that schools should be preoccupied with the minutiae of their pupils’ daily diet? Because this was never the role of the school meals programmes of the past, and it should not be their role now.

‘The state of many school meals is an indictment of more than two decades of public policy which has in effect stripped nutrients off plates, removed skills from kitchen staff and seen the take-up of school meals drop precipitously’, concludes the report, in shrilly illiterate fashion. ‘Not since the creation of the welfare state has there been such a groundswell of public support for improvement of school meals.’ Well, the School Meals Review Panel might like to see itself as the Beveridge of the twenty-first century, but the comparison is farcical.

The provision of school meals for all who wanted them, designed to meet certain nutritional standards, was laid down in the war years of the 1940s to counter widespread problems of malnourishment and rickets caused by the scarcity of food. Like the free milk programme, the aim was to provide, through the welfare state, for the basic nutritional needs of society’s poor.

This could not be more different from the situation today. Food is better, cheaper and widely available. Yes, Thatcher arguably did a bad thing by dumping the standards of school dinners and ushering in the twizzler-cafes that exist in many schools today. But the government is not seeking to revise those old standards. It is using the overblown claim that the existence of a few podgy kids is leading to an epidemic of obesity to turn school dinners into a direct form of government intervention into how people determine their daily diets, through the language of ‘controlled choice’. And it is bullying schools to turn their attention from education and towards catering.

Back in September 2004, the DfES produced a ‘healthy living blueprint for schools’, in which it outlined its aspiration that ‘every school will become a healthy school’ (3). One of the key objectives was ‘to use the full capacity and flexibility of the curriculum to achieve a healthy lifestyle’ – by incorporating the mantra of healthy eating into science, geography, maths, religious education and history, as well as the obvious personal, social and health education and citizenship classes. So not only is children’s intellectual development limited to a mind-numbing obsession with what goes in their mouths – history, the study of humanity’s great achievements, is reduced to ‘insights into changes in our ancestors’ diets and how some now familiar foods were introduced into this country’.

Like many parents, I have my own preferences when it comes to food. I think home-cooked food is generally nicer than processed food (though when it comes to the tasteless, salt-free, locally-sourced slop that the government is proposing, it’s a tough call). I wouldn’t want my daughter to eat chicken nuggets every single day. But when she starts school, I will be more concerned about what she learns and thinks than what she eats and drinks. Giving her good food is my job – the job of the school is to educate her. I don’t want her coming home unable to speak a word of French but fluent in the nutritional content of an apple; I don’t want to offer her ice cream and receive a lecture on how it might make her fat.

We have to get this obsession with food into perspective, before we ruin children’s minds in the name of saving their bodies.

Food In Perspective is a major new spiked initiative launching in spring 2006. For further information email

(1) Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food – A report on the development and implementation of nutritional standards for school lunches

(2) Turning the Tables: Transforming school food minimum standards for school meals, DfES, 3 October 2005

(3) Healthy Living Blueprint for Schools, DfES, September 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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