Why compulsory school dinners are a bad idea

A school dinner, consisting of a blue tray with compartments containing pasta, peas and mincemeat, an orange cut into quarters, a red cup of water, a piece of French bread and a fork and spoonBan packed lunches, head teachers urged (from BBC News)

The government has commissioned a report by two founders of the Leon restaurant chain (!) that says that take-up of school meals is low (43%) despite “huge quality improvements”. It claims that if everyone had school dinners then quality could improve as there would be more money in the system, that packed lunches are nearly always less nutritious than a cooked meal and should be banned, and also suggests subsidised school meals for the first years of primary and secondary schools (Reception and Year 7), but does not recommend free school meals for everyone. (More: Tattooed Mummy, Same Difference.)

As a child, I had packed lunches the whole time from the first year of infant school to the last day I spent at a day school at age 12 (obviously, packed lunches at boarding school are not an option). My lunches always consisted of a sandwich or bread roll with cheese or ham and a cereal bar, some fruit and a drink (usually fruit juice). I had a cooked meal when I got home. Lots of kids had packed lunches then, and I cannot remember poor nutritious content being an issue (fighting over sweets and the like was). Since I never had the school meals, I can’t really comment on how good or bad they were in the 1980s, but there are plenty of parents who know how to make their children a packed lunch which is filling and not full of junk. I suspect the same is true now.

We all remember the campaign Jamie Oliver led against “turkey twizzlers” a few years ago and how it led to a brief improvement in meal qualities in schools (and also to secondary-age pupils being banned from leaving school at lunchtime so as to prevent them from buying junk food, as if that was the only reason someone would want to leave school premises). The government have now undermined this by exempting academies and free schools from the new standards, and even whatever new standard will apply from next year will only apply to maintained and new free schools and academies, i.e. not existing ones. The very reason school dinner quality has got worse over the years is that less money is spent on it because of relentless pressure to bring costs down, even at the expense of quality, as seen in so many other areas of public services. Any drastic improvement in school meal quality is going to take money, and as the government are always looking to claw back money from the most vulnerable, how on earth do they now find the money to pay for massive improvements for school meals which will be supplied to everyone?

A further problem is the same one which put people off school meals in the first place: nutritious they may have been, but they were often disgusting, and some children will simply not want to eat them and this will cause the usual upsets and make children hate school. There is also the matter of whether dietary requirements will be taken account of, particularly in small schools in provincial areas, and this includes both food intolerances and religious requirements about things like meat. True, allergies such as to nuts and life-threatening dietary conditions like diabetes would be taken account of, but you might find that there is a headteacher who regards dietary intolerances as fads and refuses to accommodate them (you cannot get tested for them on the NHS in most areas) or who flatly refuses to supply halal meat (or the right kind of halal meat) on spurious “integration” or “animal welfare” grounds. One could easily make a child ill, the other is oppressive in itself and could lead to confrontation.

An aspect the news reports (and bloggers, so far) have not picked up on is that the authors of this report also have a vested interest in the outcome — as people already involved in the catering business, they or any business they might set up might just be well-placed to profit from any rise in school dinner uptake, and so making them compulsory would be of great benefit to them. However, the biggest flaw in this is that it treats parents in general as untrustworthy to feed their children properly, just because some fail to do so. As a child, I valued the family meal much more than any time I spent with anyone at school; it was home-cooked food eaten with my close family rather than unappetising mass-produced food eaten with people I didn’t like. Give me a cheese sandwich for the less important meal of the day.

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  • George Carty

    Wouldn’t religious requirements for meat be especially problematic at a school with both Muslim and Sikh pupils, as Sikhism actually forbids the consumption of halal meat?

  • M Risbrook

    Is there anything wrong with having vegetarian food as standard, and if you want meat, you pay extra for it?

  • IndigoRed

    Excellent article. We have the same problem in US schools. The students in many districts have refused to eat the meals and throw them in the trash. That seemed to solve the problem as the schools were losing far more money on the uneaten healthy meals than before.

    I went to school having packed my own lunch in a brown paper bag with some sort of meat sandwich, a fruit, and two cookies. My drink was provided at the drinking fountain. When my parents made the meal, their was too much sugary stuff that I didn’t like. My hot meals were breakfast which I cooked from age 10, and dinner at night with the whole family sitting around the table.

    I’ve not learned why that cannot work today, especially when many kids do exactly what we did as children.

  • M Risbrook

    Nick Clegg implemented his free school meals project for KS1 out of the blue with no public consultations about dietary requirements etc. Now Jeremy Corbyn wants to extend free school meals to KS2 kids and pay for it by imposing VAT on independent school fees.

    There are Muslims who are unhappy about this. VAT will be charged on the fees for small Islamic schools in exactly the same way as it will be charged on the fees for posh public schools like Eton and Harrow. This will hurt many Muslim families (who often have to scrimp and make financial sacrifices) with children attending Islamic schools with the result that it could be detrimental to their education and their future. There is a deep suspicion that VAT on school fees is nothing but an old fashioned class war.

    At the same time many Muslim parents are unhappy with Nick Clegg’s free school meals. It’s usually fine if the school has many Muslim children and serves halal meat but if the school does not serve halal meat then Muslim children are forced to take the vegetarian option which may be unappetising or not in tune with their tastes as they tend to be recipes for white non-Muslim British children. There are also issues of cross contamination and vegetarian meals running out.

    Did ILEA serve free meals to all primary school children? I can vaguely remember something from the early 1980s about uptake of meals was low in many schools because they could not meet the dietary requirements of many children due to religious reasons but the loony left running ILEA had not cottoned onto this. ILEA provided primary school children with milk free of charge in small glass bottles. In outer London boroughs milk was in cartons and parents had to pay for it.

  • I don’t know what went on in ILEA. I wasn’t from the area covered by it (Croydon was Surrey before the days of Greater London; ILEA served the former London County area). The majority of Muslim families here send their children to state schools, not small private Islamic schools which have a very mixed quality record (I have personally met parents who have pulled their own children out) so the level of discontent will not be that great. Plus, it’s only a proposal and there’s no guarantee it will get through Parliament, especially with only a small Labour majority, some of whose MPs will have actually been to private schools. Not all children have ever had school dinners anyway; I always had packed lunches and facilities for preparing school dinners has been done away with over the years in many schools anyway (it can’t all have been rebuilt during the “Jamie Oliver era” of late New Labour).

  • M Risbrook

    I was a member of the Conservative Party in the early 1980s, so I’m well aware that the GLC and ILEA was a fortress of the loony left under Red Ken at the time. The issue surrounding the uptake of school meals helped to reinforce my theory that whilst the loony left defends multiculturalism to the hilt it’s largely white British and not very religious membership is confused and actually has a poor knowledge and understanding of people of foreign origin and those who follow non-Christian religions that they proclaim to love. Non-Muslim black Jamaicans were the poster children and privileged ethnic group at the time amongst the loony left of the GLC and ILEA who would often refer to south Asians – and even Chinese and Turkish people – as black whilst at the same time ignoring and overlooking factors relating to their cultures and religions. Old school (economic) socialists weren’t much better. They were culturally British but they were living in 1945. I can remember them defending school meals in the early 1980s but they completely failed to give any consideration to children with special diets. Like the loony left, they also didn’t cotton on to why uptake of meals was low in some schools.

    Only a small fraction of Muslim children currently attend independent Islamic schools but the numbers are increasing and so is interest in them from Muslim parents. IMO imposing VAT on school fees will impact on Muslim families harder than it will impact on the wealthy families who’s children attend expensive public schools. I am aware that there is some disaffection with Islamic schools but they are a concept in their infancy. Two notable examples are that the schools are biased towards Muslims of a particular ethnic group or country of origin, and that the schools are too academic for many children.