School dinners are not the real problem

Susan Elkin

140742633 300x267 School dinners are not the real problemWhy on earth has Michael Gove commissioned yet another report on school dinners, this time from Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, co founders of the LEON restaurant chain? Are they under orders to come up with something significantly different from what Jamie Oliver told the last government? Have we got to the stage that even school dinners wear a party political hat?

The trouble with school dinners is that they have to be eaten in school which gives them the same status as hospital and prison food. Children tend not to like them – especially if they are offered healthy things they’ve been conditioned almost from birth to dislike – and parents object to paying for them. Result? Only just over a third of pupils eat school dinners at both primary and secondary level.

Not so long ago many schools served chips with everything (typically the notorious turkey twizzlers and other junk) every day followed by tasteless puddings bulked up with large quantities of saturated fat and sugar. Then came Oliver’s campaign and a set of nutritional standards – for schools run by local authorities.

And there’s the rub. Just as they don’t have to teach the national curriculum, so academies, free schools and independent schools are exempted from those standards. It means in theory they can all feed kids an exclusive diet of greasy pizza with chips followed by treacle tart drowned in thick custard.

In practice, of course, they don’t.  Whatever the culinary hand wringers and habitual Gove knockers say, most schools have a great deal more sense and social responsibility.

Just as all schools teach a programme which is pretty close to the National Curriculum, so every one I’ve been in for the last ten years or so offers its pupils pretty healthy, pleasant food.

And I have visited hundreds of schools as a journalist since I finally, and very reluctantly,  gave up my last little bit of part-time teaching to pursue my demanding second career full-time in 2004 after decades  in classrooms.

If you are in a school as a journalist you are frequently offered lunch and more  often than not eat it with students so that you can chat to them in congenial surroundings. So I really have eaten school meals in every sort of school – possible more than many of the people like Lynda Mitchell of the Local Authority Caterers Association and Sharon Hodgson, Labour’s spokeswoman on children and families, both of whom have  this week been expressing anxiety about standards.

So if school dinners have improved so much, why aren’t more children eating them? It’s partly because parents perceive it as cheaper to send the boy or girl with a packed lunch, but also partly – and this is the most worrying thing of all – because many children regard anything which is not, say, a burger or fried as boring and unpalatable.

And it is this entrenched attitude – the pervasive junk food culture – which means children now tend to reject good food. No wonder there’s a worsening childhood obesity issue along with an alarming increase, amongst children, in conditions caused by unhealthy eating, including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. A huge number of families, we’re told, never cook meals from ingredients or eat together. Many don’t even have a table.

Well if that’s the environment you have grown up in you are not likely, aged 4 or 5 and already set in your ways, to go to school and happily tuck into lean ham salad or  made-on-the-premises wholewheat macaroni cheese and broccoli.

It’s a pity Gove – in association with the Department of Health perhaps –  didn’t commission Dimbleby and Vincent to build on Oliver’s work and look at ways of helping families to eat better, rather than limiting the brief to school meals. It is home eating which is the root of the problem.

For a start we could have some serious money invested in re-establishing cookery teaching facilities and courses in schools – almost all thrown away in a dreadful act of vandalism under the Conservative governments in the 1980s and 90s.

And could we find some way of discouraging restaurants and supermarkets from pushing special,child friendly junk at kids instead of meals? In France a children’s menu simply means smaller portions and children are expected, from weaning, to eat more or less what their parents do – as opposed to the chicken nuggets, low grade ice cream and so on –  which typifies the children’s menu in most British restaurants.

Television and other advertising has a lot to answer for too. If the government could find some way of tackling the national nutrition issue at its root we might get somewhere. As it is, we’re just lopping off odd branches in a panic. And it  is unlikely to achieve much.

And I suspect, anyway, that the Dimbleby/Vincent report is only a ruse to give Gove a get out. They will report that nutritional standards should be applied to all schools, including academies and free schools. Gove will accept their recommendation and it might silence his critics for ten minutes.

But it won’t make any difference to the health of most of our badly nourished children.

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