Just shut up about school meals

Another government initiative to improve school dinners? Don’t officials have better things to do with their time?

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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The education secretary for England, Michael Gove, has announced a new inquiry into school meals, to be led by the founders of the Leon restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent. And for once, I’m in agreement with Jamie Oliver: ‘Now is not the time for more costly reports.’

The inquiry’s terms of reference state what sounds like a perfectly reasonable goal: ‘All schoolchildren should be offered food that is both tasty and good for them.’ Claiming that there has been a ‘measurable improvement in the number of children taking up school meals and the nutritional quality of the food they are eating’, the goal of the new report will be to create a plan of action by 2013 to extend the new meals right across the country.

If we need an inquiry, it should be into the following question: how on earth did school meals come to be one of the defining issues of British politics in recent years?

School meals really came into their own after the Second World War, at a time when it was widely feared that too many families were too poor to feed their children properly. Then, the first nail in the coffin of the school-meals service came in the late 1960s when the cash-strapped Labour government started bumping up lunch prices and withdrew free school milk from secondary schools in 1968. That was, incidentally, two years before Margaret Thatcher was appointed education secretary and earned her moniker ‘milk snatcher’ for withdrawing free school milk from older primary-school pupils.

However, as prime minister, Thatcher had a more profound effect on school meals. Nutritional standards were abolished and local authorities were only obliged to provide meals for poorer children. Many school kitchens closed, ‘competitive tendering’ was introduced to allow private companies to bid for school-meal contracts, and the number of children entitled to free meals was reduced further by the 1986 Social Security Act. School meals were now to be no more than a safety net for the poorest children.

While there were grumblings and small-scale campaigns about school meals in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it wasn’t until 2005 that the issue exploded into the nation’s consciousness, with Jamie Oliver’s Channel 4 TV series Jamie’s School Dinners. The mockney chef showed how school meals had been reduced to an exercise in opening pre-packed foods and heating them up, producing food that didn’t seem particularly appetising. The villain of the piece was the Turkey Twizzler, a twist of micro-minced turkey that was high in fat and salt (and, incidentally, surprisingly popular with schoolchildren). More importantly, however, Oliver made various lurid claims about how school meals were partly responsible for an obesity crisis that was going to mean that this would be the first generation of children to die before their parents.

As spiked noted at the time, the fact that Oliver’s most alarming claims were simply untrue didn’t seem to bother anyone. In the run up to the General Election of 2005, New Labour prime minister Tony Blair vaulted on to the school-meals bandwagon and promised Oliver extra money for ingredients and new nutrition standards.

The result was a decline in school-meal uptake – well, why would parents pay through the nose for apparently deadly food? – and various intemperate comments from Oliver about how many parents were ‘tossers’ and how packed lunches were ‘the biggest evil’. School-meals uptake in primary schools may have recovered since then, but in secondary schools, where kids can vote with their feet, just 37.6 per cent of children take school meals according to the latest figures.

The latest row kicked off because of Academy schools. These are schools that are publicly funded but are no longer controlled by local authorities, giving them more freedom in terms of how they are run and what they teach. That independence also means that school-food standards don’t apply to them. Oliver has demanded that the nutrition standards should be extended to these schools, too, and he threw his dummy out of the pram when Gove refused to do this.

So Gove’s new report has Oliver apoplectic with rage. ‘Now is not the time for more costly reports. Now is the time for action and that doesn’t seem to be what we get from Mr Gove when it comes to school food and food education. This [inquiry] just delays action for another year or more.’

Really, we have had more than enough talk about school meals. While most people are sympathetic to the idea that school meals should taste good and be (reasonably) nutritious, the burden being placed on lunch is just too much to bear. Apparently, simply improving school meals will reverse the obesity crisis, improve children’s behaviour at school, and lead to a generation of smarter kids. In the name of improving children’s lunches, their packed lunches are now inspected and parents put firmly in their place if young Johnny or Mary aren’t getting the right tucker in their lunchbox. (I say ‘Johnny or Mary’. The most popular baby names in 2012 were Oliver and Olivia. I hope that doesn’t mean what I think it means…)

If school meals really were responsible for killing children, this furore might make some sense. But there is no basis for this claim whatsoever. Life expectancy continues to rocket upwards. Children born today can expect to live past their eightieth birthday. Childhood obesity rates are actually falling, as a recent report by the Social Issues Research Centre reminds us. Claims about school performance and the new nutrition standards don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Instead, the school meals debate has been the epitome of modern political life: campaigner makes unwarranted claims about our health – or better still, children’s health – and then the government nobly steps in to take some kind of draconian action. The result is all sorts of unwanted consequences, from poorer children avoiding their entitlement to free meals to children obsessing about their weight and the school curriculum being horribly distorted in the name of teaching pupils about how to eat properly.

So yes, this is a report too far. Dimbleby and Vincent, no doubt already burdened by a variety of prejudices about food, and having already had a couple of chats with Oliver before taking the job on, will have their ears bent by the usual campaigners and quangos before declaring that Something Must Be Done. Which is true, something must be done. We should all just shut up about school meals.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

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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