It's not the government's job to tell parents how to feed their children.
Rob Lyons on Britain’s Packed Lunch Police, who are rifling through our children’s lunchboxes in search of fun-size Mars bars, crisps, Coke and other contraband items.
It’s back to school this week for boys and girls in England – and straight back into the minefield that is eating lunch. If you thought that a midday meal was just a way of getting children through afternoon lessons without rumbling tummies, think again.
School meals became big news in the UK in 2005 after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a televised crusade on Channel 4 to try to improve them. While the basic aim of Jamie’s School Dinners – providing better quality food – seemed laudable enough, Oliver served his critique of school meals provision with lashings of junk science and a generous side order of parent-bashing (see Jamie Oliver: what a ‘tosser’, by Rob Lyons).
The controversy created by Oliver’s series made school meals a major issue in the 2005 UK General Election campaign. The New Labour government, always keen to jump on any passing bandwagon, stumped up over £200million to pay for improved ingredients and a new quango, the School Food Trust. Spread over three years and millions of children, however, the investment amounted to just a few pence per child per day, doing little to provide for the additional work taken on by low-paid school catering staff or to improve the poor facilities available to cook in.
The upshot of this has been a reaction against school meals. Figures circulated by the Liberal Democrats this week show that the number of children who take school meals has fallen by 400,000 since Jamie’s School Dinner was aired in 2005 and the new school food standards were introduced in 2006 (1). Meanwhile, the School Food Trust published research (based on just 136 primary school children in Sheffield) which suggested that children eating packed lunches were less likely to eat fruit or vegetables than those taking school meals, and were more likely to have confectionery and sugary soft drinks (2).
This fall in numbers taking school meals has caused alarm. The Lib Dems accused the government of rushing through reforms without educating pupils and parents. This seems bizarre: is there anyone in the country who isn’t aware that we’re ‘supposed’ to eat fruit and veg and that ‘junk’ is bad for us? If people eat the ‘wrong’ things, it is because they choose to do so. Other factors mentioned include the rising cost of meals (up 20 per cent in the last three years according to the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA)); changes to lunch breaks that mean hundreds of children need to be fed in a very short time; or the unpleasant surroundings of many a school dining hall.
But two factors stand out. Some parents have been put off school meals by the negative publicity generated by Oliver’s programme, which suggested that school meals would speed their children to an early grave. Many children simply don’t like the food now on offer. The new guidelines mean that salt is now forbidden from dining tables, and has been cut back in preparation of food. Meat products are restricted, as are fried foods, and confectionery and sugary drinks are banned altogether. This may seem like doing the right thing (or imposing faddy health obsessions on children, depending on your point of view) but removing choices from children has led to many of them avoiding the canteen altogether.
That would help to explain why, according to LACA’s National School Meals Survey, school-meal uptake in primary schools is starting to recover while in secondary schools, where pupils have much more freedom to buy the ‘wrong’ thing on the way to school or skive off to the chipshop, school-meal numbers remain seriously down. Where school meals were once either profitable or at least broke even, now 65 per cent of services are forecast to lose money in the coming year. LACA suggests that in some areas the school meals service may soon be unviable.
Many parents and children, unhappy with what’s being served up in the canteen, have decided they’d prefer a packed lunch to a dog’s dinner. But far from this being seen as a sign that the school meals reforms have failed, the packed lunch has now become the focus of concern instead. The increasing popularity of the packed lunch didn’t go down well with the Catering Crusader, Jamie Oliver. He told the Independent in April 2006 that packed lunches ‘are the biggest evil’: ‘Even the best packed lunch is a shit packed lunch.’
Responding to Oliver’s comments at the time, I foolishly wrote: ‘Thankfully, packed lunches are not (yet) under the control of government inspectors, and so parents have control over what goes into them.’ (3) Clearly I underestimated the authorities healthy eating zealotry. Only a few months later, children were being sent home with letters explaining that their packed lunches did not meet new guidelines. One offence committed by parents was to include not one but two snack items in their children’s lunchbox. The horror.
If parents were routinely including hard liquor or class ‘A’ drugs in their children’s lunchboxes, there might be some justification for this kind of action. But fun-size Mars bars, bags of crisps and fizzy drinks are not going to kill anyone; replacing them with pineapple slices and mineral water will make little or no difference to anyone’s health. Nonetheless, the government and the School Food Trust now see fit to tell parents how to feed their children. The overblown panic about obesity means this extraordinary assumption of power by schools and health guardians has met with little resistance.
This Orwellian intervention comes with its very own Newspeak. ‘The School Food Trust advocates the introduction of Packed Lunch Policies to support healthier eating. Where implemented, after proper consultation with pupils, parents and staff, they offer clear guidance and an opportunity to improve food consumed by all pupils.’ (4) In other words, we’ll explain what your children are supposed to eat; we’ll listen to your views before ignoring them; and then we’ll enforce our policy whether you like it or not. What seems dictatorial and compulsory to parents is in fact ‘support’ and ‘an opportunity’, honest.
Parents have to make choices about how to feed their children based on all sorts of demands. The vast majority of parents would love to be able to pack a lunchbox with fruit and vegetables, confident that their children would lap it all up. In reality, busy parents feed fussy children with whatever they think will actually get eaten when mum and dad aren’t around to nag. Why does the government think it can make a better job of this process than parents?
It is a remarkable sign of the times that the freedom to choose how to feed our children is even an issue. Only a government utterly divorced from the populace and struggling to justify its existence would make a meal out of a lunchbox.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
(1) Oliver’s plan fails as pupils snub healthy school meals, Independent, 4 September 2007
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