Britain’s neverending school-meals saga

The relentless politicisation of the humble school dinner has been bad for parents, teachers and children.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Yesterday, spiked’s Rob Lyons spoke at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum on the issue of school dinners. His speech is published below.

Providing children with something good to eat every lunchtime seems like a good idea to me. Indeed, I was a double beneficiary of the school meals service: not only did I receive free school meals growing up in Birmingham, but my dear old mum was a school dinner lady for a few years, too. However, I would rather children ate takeaways and Turkey Twizzlers than for society to keep up the moralistic scaremongering and instrumentalism that currently drives school meals policy.

Providing children with a good lunch is a civilised thing to do. Adults would normally expect to have access to a warm and tasty lunch, so why not our children? Providing meals in a school canteen is also a civilising thing to do: it is important for children to learn how to conduct themselves at the table, and school meals also offer an opportunity for adults and peers to encourage children to try new foods.

Having said that, today I think we run the risk of placing too great a burden on school meals. We seem to believe that providing schoolchildren with a good meal can somehow solve all manner of wider problems. I don’t think that is true, and this burden of expectation has had negative consequences for the school meals service, parental autonomy and the relationship between parents and schools.

The first thing that is required is a pinch of salt, both literally and metaphorically. Literally in the sense that salt is now treated in schools as something to be feared, like an unexploded bomb rather than an essential component of flavour; that is a problem because if the food doesn’t taste good, the kids won’t eat it. And metaphorically we need a pinch of salt in order to counter the various panics that have been created around food.

One of the main drivers of the resurgent interest in school meals has been the talk of an ‘obesity timebomb’. In his campaigning TV programmes on school dinners, Jamie Oliver suggested that if something wasn’t done, today’s children would die before their parents. The implication is that parents are too ignorant or lazy to feed their children properly, so it falls to a celebrity chef – in tandem with schools and quangos – to save the day. In reality, the current generation of children are almost certainly going to live significantly longer, on average, than their parents.

In fact, despite all the furore around obesity, life expectancies for most of those who are classified as obese are little different from those of a normal weight. Indeed, figures from the US suggest that, if anything, it is the moderately overweight who seem to live longest (see All you need is ‘love handles’, by Patrick Basham and John Luik).

Moreover, to the extent that obesity is a problem, I am extremely sceptical about the idea that giving children a healthy meal at lunchtime will solve it. Consider the assumption that if kids don’t eat healthily when they’re young, then they will simply carry on expanding throughout adulthood. Actually, the relationship between childhood obesity and long-term adult body shape is much weaker than that. Plenty of skinny kids – like me – pile on the weight later in life, while the plump kids are often the ones who make the biggest effort to watch what they eat as they get older.

The population has been getting fatter gradually for decades, even during what many would see as the golden age of school meals. Yet this gradual fattening has coincided with an equally steady rise in life expectancies. That suggests that obesity is not a disease, and nor is it a death sentence.

Another idea doing the rounds is that feeding children well at lunchtime will magically improve their performance in the classroom. But it is reductionist to put the problems of schooling down to eating habits. Children are more than just the sum of their chemical inputs.

There is some evidence that changing school meals provision has coincided with improving academic performance. But it seems more likely that any such academic changes came about because the emphasis on improving the food gave the schools a sense of collective purpose that may have been lacking previously. Some schools, like Todmorden High School in West Yorkshire, have built a new school ethos around the subject of food, with positive academic consequences. It seems rather insulting to reduce the efforts of teachers, parents and the local community to a question of how much vitamin C or iron a child is ingesting. Even the simple matter of sitting down to a proper meal with crockery and cutlery instead of being handed cheap food on a plastic tray must surely change pupils’ perceptions of being at school.

We will only solve the problems of education if we can impress upon children the importance of schooling and give teachers the freedom to inspire kids about their subjects. Instead, lessons are used to push the latest political fad down children’s throats. Friends of mine who are parents despair about the fact that every school project now seems to be about healthy eating, recycling and climate change. Can’t we find something a bit more inspirational to teach kids?

Rather than presenting better school meals as an end in themselves, we’ve loaded all sorts of preoccupations on to them. And turning the provision of school meals from a catering issue into a crusading one has had some pretty troubling side effects.

For example, after Jamie’s School Dinners, uptake of school meals fell to the point that in some parts of Britain the very survival of the school meals service was called into question. Understandably, if you imply that school meals are killing children, parents are going to find alternatives, like packed lunches. It didn’t help that Oliver then declared that ‘packed lunches are the biggest evil. Even the best packed lunch is a shit packed lunch.’ That kind of thinking in turn led to the farce of lunchbox inspections, where children would be sent home with a note for their parents scolding them for giving little Johnny or Jane too many snacks or the wrong kind of sandwich. This only drove a wedge between parents and schools.

So what would I suggest? First of all, we need to be a lot more critical of certain health claims. Not only do they tend to be overblown, but the upshot of every health scare seems to be that someone needs to intervene in the minutiae of our lives ever more.

Secondly, feeding children must be seen first and foremost as a parental responsibility. The school meals service is a valuable thing, but it should be there to help parents, not become another stick with which to beat them. After all, it is parents who have to deal with their children’s fussy eating habits while balancing family budgets. Teachers should be working hard to make sure that children can read, write and add up, not lecturing children and parents about packets of Monster Munch.

So let’s give children good meals because that’s the right thing to do. We don’t need to justify it by damning parents or pretending that eating certain kinds of food will save education and turn out model citizens.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked and blogs at Panic on a Plate. This article is based on a speech given at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum on 7 September.

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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