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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