The battle of the lunchbox

Parents are quite capable of feeding their children - despite what the government's School Food Trust would have us believe.

Jane Sandeman

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Topics Politics

It’s bad enough having Jamie Oliver telling us how to feed our children without another celebrity chef joining in. But in January, Prue Leith, cookery writer and restaurateur, takes up her position as chair of the School Food Trust. ‘This is the most important job I have ever had,’ she said on her appointment. ‘I believe we can really change attitudes through the trust’s mission to help schools teach every pupil about food and nutrition and to give them cooking lessons. (1)’

The School Food Trust is yet another government-knows-best initiative set up to propagate myths about diet and intervene into areas where government should fear to tread. It’s website states as fact the horrors of the epidemic of obese children. In fact, the level of obesity is generally overstated (see Fattened statistics, by Peter Marsh) and the solutions are generally worse than the ‘problem’ (see Stop bullying fat kids, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick).

The one thing we do know is that people are living longer and healthier than ever before. The mortality rate for five year olds fell by 98 per cent from 1901 to 2001. In 1901, the UK average life expectancy was 46 years for men, and 50 years for women. In 2001 this had risen to 76 years for men and 81 years for women (2). Hardly doomsday scenarios.

As a parent who is the intended recipient of such initiatives, what makes my blood boil is they reveal exactly what the government thinks of me.

Here is what actually happens. Parents want their children to be happy and healthy. They want their children to eat food that will make them strong and grow. Parents are also pragmatic with their children. They would rather their children ate something rather than nothing (an admirable idea, I hope you’ll agree) and so work out what that means. This might mean a whole host of different things, from mini pizzas to sweet potatoes, because children all have their individual tastes and quirks.

The School Food Trust site however assumes that parents are complete idiots and then goes from there.

For example, one of the factsheets for parents is on the sticky subject of the humble packed lunch. The factsheet tells us ignorant parents that ‘packing a lunch can be done in five minutes before school. Or, if you’re usually pushed for time, pack it the night before and put it in the fridge.’ (3) Thanks for that because we’d obviously never be able to manage without such words of advice. With that sort of view of how impotent we are, it is amazing that the children in question have lived long enough to go to school to have a packed lunch. How did we know not to immerse our children in boiling hot water when bathing them as infants? However did we manage to heat up their baby food?

After assuming we have so little intelligence, the site then continues in a patronising vein to advise us not to put the same thing in our children’s lunchbox every day. ‘Try to have a different type of fruit every day – don’t always pick an orange and an apple, why not try kiwi, mango, grapes, pear, chunks of melon or small packets of dried fruit.’

So, we’re apparently so useless we can’t even work out when and how to make our kids’ lunches but somehow we have the time to wander around sourcing a variety of fruits. Nor does it stop at fruit. There are all sorts of interesting breads we should search for, too. Examples given to put in our children’s lunchboxes are pittas, bagels, baguettes, ciabatta, rice crackers, rolls, wraps – anything but the humble white loaf which somehow has assumed the moral status of heroin.

To be fair, the School Food Trust is not alone in deciding they know better than parents. That other great government-funded institution, the BBC, has decided that mother does not know best. The BBC’s ‘Big Challenge’ is to transform the state of the lunchbox as we know it. As with the School Food Trust, bog standard white sliced bread is the loaf that dare not speak its name. Any old pitta, bagel or wrap will do in place of Sunblest or Mothers Pride. Once again, parents are meant to be sourcing a whole range of products from pasta-based salads to small packs of nuts and seeds.

At one point, it occurs to the author of this advice, nutritionist Lyndel Costain, that children may not rejoice when being offered a bit of pasta and a few nuts to sustain them through the school day. But never fear! There is more sound advice to dole out to us stupid parents. ‘Involve them in lunchbox planning’ or ‘give them a star’ if they try a ‘new, healthier lunchbox food’. After five stars ‘give them a small reward, such as… [wait for it] … a family walk’! (4)

Please! My 4 year old and 7 year old are involved in lunchbox planning in that they are very sure of what they like and don’t like and a packet of seeds, however much planned, will not be eaten. And a family walk, for my kids at least, is not an incentive to look with delight on a vegetable stick with a dip but an onerous activity they are dragged on under great duress.

If it sounds like I have a personal axe to grind, I do. In my children’s primary school they have embraced the healthy eating agenda with a vengeance. This includes inspecting the children’s lunchboxes and giving awards to the child who brings the ‘healthiest’ lunch to school, while telling those who have biscuits in their box to bring an apple instead.

Perhaps I should think myself lucky compared to the parents of little Ryan Stupples, who was excluded from the school dining hall and made to eat in the headmaster’s office for having – shock, horror – two snack items in his lunchbox. The headmaster told the Daily Telegraph: ‘We take healthy eating very seriously and everyone is aware of our new policies.’ (5) The thought of a 10 year old boy being told by their school that they’ve done something naughty because of what mum and dad put in their lunchbox sends shivers down the spine.

If the lunchbox inspections are bad, the battle for young hearts, minds and stomachs is even worse. When I went to see an assembly that my daughter’s class staged for parents, the tour de force was six year old girls reading their poems about healthy eating. I found myself feeling queasy as they told us about how you must not eat fatty things, because it is important to be thin! The following week there was yet another healthy eating day which involved trying ‘healthy’ foods. Discussing this with friends in the parents forum that I run, it was clear that everyone had their own little horror story to tell of their child’s school cracking down on contraband lunchbox items or brainwashing them about the dangers of their food.

Call me old fashioned but shouldn’t school be trying to develop knowledge and imagination, whether through fantastic literary tales or inspiring science? Why instead are we infecting such young children with an obsession with their bodies?

Parents will remain pragmatic and keep focused on doing what is best for their children, giving them what they will eat, and sometimes getting them to stretch the boundaries of what that means. But at the same time, parents shouldn’t be complacent about the patronising messages coming from something like the School Food Trust. These messages show that the government holds us in high contempt and doesn’t like it when we don’t bow before their codes and guidelines, that we can work out for ourselves what is best for our children. It has imbued food stuffs with moral characteristics – sliced white bread bad, ciabatta good – and it wants to ensure that morality is enforced.

Parents: you can expect plenty of arguments with schools over how to feed your children in the coming months. Stand by what is right for your child. Hold onto your children’s lunchboxes and let the battle commence!

Jane Sandeman is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Parents Forum.

(1) Prue Leith gets school meals post, BBC News, 9 November 2006

(2) Longevity in the 21st century, Faculty of Actuaries

(3) School Food Trust website

(4) Healthy lunch boxes, BBC

(5) Ban for boy with two snacks, Daily Telegraph, 14 October 2006

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