Following a recent government commissioned school food review it was revealed that only 43% of school children are opting for school dinners. This is despite a huge improvement in quality in recent years that has seen school lunches in the UK undergo a veritable revolution. Jamie Oliver has almost single-handedly changed the way we eat in recent years and one of the biggest transformations has been in the arena of school dinners.
Most of us enjoyed watching the Jamie’s School Dinners documentary series on Channel 4 a few years ago. His aim was to bring quality and nutritional value to school dinners at a typical UK school, Kidbrooke in Greenwich. At first the kids refused to eat the food and the dinner ladies were threatening to resign because of the extra work involved. A short spell in ‘boot camp’ for the dinner ladies with demonstrations from the British Army catering division on cooking large amounts of food efficiently and quickly soon solved the teething problems and they were off.
Since then, despite the dramatic improvement in school dinners in most parts of the UK, take up is still fairly disappointing and head teachers in England have been urged to ban packed lunches to increase take up and promote healthy eating. School Food Plan recently announced universal free school meals for Reception to Year 2. This is pretty mind boggling from a Conservative government whose most famous lady leader was dubbed “the Milk Snatcher” after stopping free school milk in schools in the seventies when she was Secretary of State for Education!
With the variety of different dietary requirement these days, surely compulsory school dinners will be something that is difficult to pull off. Will there be daily vegetarian/vegan dishes on offer? What about Halal food – will this be available in all schools? Will kids with allergies/food intolerances be catered for? These are just some of the questions that could make compulsory school dinners a nightmare for school kitchen staff across the UK. The logistics of providing compulsory school meals that are suitable for everybody in this multi-cultural society will probably lead to the requirement of a Food Tsar in every school!
The School Food Plan authors maintain that packed lunches are nearly always less nutritious than a cooked meal. However, my two kids alternated between school dinners (which they were entitled to have free of charge) and packed lunches throughout their school lives. I always made sure that they had a nutritious packed lunch that was the envy of all their friends. Indeed, my one daughter’s friends used to wait avidly to see what was in her box, offering to swap some of their junk food for the delicious treats that she had. There was always a sandwich (brown bread and healthy filling), fruit, something sweet, yoghurt or fromage frais, raw carrot, cucumber and sometimes a small piece of chocolate.
My youngest daughter attended a secondary school with a modern canteen and was entitled to free lunches. However, after one term of this she opted for a packed lunch instead. Because the lunches were served in two sittings, by the time she’d queued for her food (the dinner ticket meant she could only afford chips on their own if she wanted a piece of fruit as well and the dinner ticket never covered the cost of a whole meal) it was time to go back into class, with no time to eat the food. A packed lunch meant that she had a healthy midday meal with the time she needed to eat it and digest it in peace.
Although banning packed lunches in schools may seem like a great way of making sure all kids get a midday meal, unless it is planned very carefully (and numerous considerations taken into account) we may find that the plan backfires and that many kids end up not getting a healthy and nutritious lunch.