The milk of human kindness? Hardly

The defence of free school milk springs from a view that only the state, not parents, can be trusted to feed kids properly.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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At the risk of aligning myself with Margaret Thatcher (Milk Snatcher), I have to ask: would it really be the end of the world if the government stopped subsidising the daily provision of a third of a pint of milk to children in nurseries? Reading the responses to Lib-Con health minster Anne Milton’s suggestion that the practice should be ceased in order to save money, you could be forgiven for thinking that Milk Snatcherism was on the march once more, and that kids – especially the poor ones, covered in scabs and soot – will now drop dead in their thousands, their bones zapped of all marrow as a result of a dearth of calcium.

Of course I’m against government miserliness. Of course it’s stingy, and mad, to think you can tackle economic crises by taking little cartons of milk away from nursery attendees (which would save a paltry £60million a year). But it’s worth asking what is driving the milk-snatching mania, where Ms Milton is being depicted as the heir to the wicked ways of that monster Maggie. The milk defence league that has sprung up in the media and health circles is less about standing up to government pennypinching, and more about demanding that the state provide children with essential nutrients because their thick parents can’t be trusted to do so.

There are many striking things about the ‘milk snatching’ story. First, it highlights the desperation of even the upper echelons of the Conservative Party to disassociate themselves from Thatcher. When she was Tory education secretary in 1971, eight years before becoming PM, Thatcher scrapped free milk for schoolchildren over seven – hence ‘milk snatcher’. And as soon as it became clear that Milton’s proposed scrapping of free milk for under-fives would lead to accusations that the Tories are ‘as evil as ever’ – ‘Dark echoes of Thatcher’, said one newspaper – Downing Street took the unusual step of publicly overriding her and declaring that scrapping nursery milk had been ‘ruled out’. A Lib-Con minister heard about the overruling on live TV and was forced to carry out an instantaeous U-turn. Cameron may pay lip service to his ‘hero’ Maggie, but he also wants to make clear that the New Tories really are New.

Secondly, this story shows how shallow the radical and liberal critique of Thatcher is these days. That her ‘wickedness’ is now said to be most explicitly revealed by her snatching of milk from over-sevens – an act apparently more dastardly than the Falklands, the war on the miners, her antics in Ireland, etc – shows that anti-Thatcherism is today little more than anti-wicked witch moralism, the politics of the bogeyman, designed to flatter the practitioner rather than to enlighten political debate.

And thirdly, this all demonstrates how keen commentators and health officials are for the state to act in loco parentis. The seed for the idea that taking half a glass of milk away from nursery kids will spell doom – because ‘in terms of building bones it’s absolutely key’ – is that parents are either too stupid or busy, or both, to feed their children correctly. As one expert told the BBC, ‘for children who do not get a balanced diet high in fruit and vegetables and food like fish, milk [in schools] is the only real way of them getting enough calcium’. It is the perception of parents as calcium-deprivers, and the state as calcium-saviours, that has motored the overnight milk-defending lobby. Here, a bit of milk comes to be seen as the catch-all provider of nutrition to children let down by their parents – ‘state milk’ in place of mother’s milk.

So Bridget Benelam of the British Nutrition Foundation said milk in schools is essential because it ‘can be difficult for parents to get their children to eat lots of green, leafy veg [and other sources of calcium]’. The BBC’s resident GP and health expert, Dr Sarah Jarvis, spelt out what ‘difficult for parents’ means: apparently, parents don’t face practical difficulties so much as intellectual ones. ‘There is no such thing as a child in this country whose parents absolutely cannot afford to give them milk, but… understanding from some parents about nutrition is so poor that many children are just not getting it.’ Others have talked about the benefits of free milk to the ‘poorer, more vulnerable members of society’ – who are poor and vulnerable not in the sense that they can’t afford milk (it’s only about 18p for a third of a pint) but in the sense that they don’t really know what is best for their children’s health. Sticking with the milk-as-saviour theme, one nutritionist says free milk in nurseries is a ‘safety net‘, especially for children ‘from households where other food and drink choices may not be optimum’. I wonder what kind of households she’s talking about?

When the School Milk Act was passed in 1946, it made some sense. Recovering from war, and with a severe system of rationing still in place, Britain had lots of kids who really were malnourished. Today, when even the poorest families can afford white bread, milk, cheese, fruit and veg – all good sources of calcium – and lots of other Tesco or Iceland goodies, the provision of free milk does seem like a hangover. It is defended now largely as a symbolic thing, a way of demonstrating that the state is possessed of the milk of human kindness and that its nutritional nous and morals are superior to those of ordinary parents. The same assumptions were behind the massive overhaul of the school-dinners system, the introduction of packed-lunch monitoring, the scrapping of tuckshops and the introduction of healthy breakfasts in British schools in recent years: if parents are left to feed their children, they will only serve them ‘shit’, so the state must step in to give them healthy fare.

It’s a shame, because milk in schools is not a bad idea; it would be even better with a free cookie for dipping. Hot, nutritious lunches are a good idea, too, as are free breakfasts for the children of parents pressed for time. But the side order of anti-parent moralism needs to be taken off the tray.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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

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