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School dinners: serving up a food sermon

British school meals have become a tool for social engineering.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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In the third of spiked’s series of essays on paternalism, Rob Lyons examines the transformation of school meals from a hunger-averting necessity into a means of hectoring children and parents about the ‘right’ way to eat.

Aiming to feed children well would seem to be about the least controversial idea imaginable. Making sure that the next generation of adults has access to the nutrition required to allow them to grow up to be healthy, take part fully in the world and focus on their studies is undoubtedly a good idea.

But what was once a practical issue has been transformed into a vehicle by which the state can express distrust of parents. What began as an urgent welfare programme has become, at least in part, a way for those who ‘know best’ in the corridors of power to impose their ideas on parents.

A bite-sized history of school meals

In the UK, school meals have been around for a long time. At first, the provision of school meals was a response to the fact that many children from poor families simply did not have enough to eat. In 1879, the English city of Manchester started to provide free school meals to badly nourished children and there were various other attempts around the UK to provide meals for needy children over the subsequent 20 years or so.

Around this time, evidence was building that many working-class people were going hungry, well-illustrated by the surveys of the poor by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The problem was further highlighted by the poor physical state of the potential recruits for the Boer War, which meant that in some places two thirds of applicants were deemed unfit to fight. Negative publicity about these things, combined with the pressure coming from the election of 29 Labour Party MPs in 1906, prompted the Liberal government to allow local authorities to provide food to schoolchildren (though the provision of such meals was not, at this time, compulsory). The aim was to ‘provide meals to children, either free or at a reduced cost, in order to help those who were “unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided for them”‘.

The 1921 Education Act set out the circumstances in which children should be provided with free school meals, but these were quickly rationed due to the rising cost, with the result that many children who should have received them did not. In 1936, for example, a survey of local education authorities found that only 2.7 per cent of children received free meals.

The biggest change came with the Second World War. The fact that women were required to do the work left by men who had gone off to fight meant that children needed to be fed at midday by schools because they could not go home. As one author, Penelope Hall, noted, this temporary solution was quickly institutionalised: ‘The “feeding centre” was gradually transformed into the “school canteen”, and by February 1944, 32.8 per cent of the number of pupils present were having dinners.’

If there was ever a ‘golden age’ of school meals, it began with the 1944 Education Act, which made it compulsory for local authorities to provide school meals, free of charge to poorer children and at no more than the cost of the raw ingredients to the rest. The aim, as declared in a government circular in 1955, was a lunch ‘suitable in all respects as the main meal of the day’. Free school milk was also provided from 1946 to all schoolchildren.

As with much of the new welfare state, there was a streak of paternalism running through it. In 1945, the minister of food, Lord Woolton, told the Warwickshire Women’s Institute: ‘The young need protection and it is proper that the state should take deliberate steps to give them opportunity…. Feeding is not enough, it must be good feeding… This is a task that calls for the highest degree of scientific catering; it mustn’t be left to chance.’

By 1951, 49 per cent of pupils ate school meals and 84 per cent drank school milk. Hall, writing in 1963, prefigures some modern concerns about ignorant parents and how school meals could be used for the improvement of children: ‘The primary aim of the school-meals service is the adequate nutrition of all the nation’s children, but it is intended to do more than this. The school meal is regarded in many quarters as an opportunity for social training, and for the inculcation of good food habits, both very important items in the education of all children, particularly perhaps in that of over-indulged only children, or those from homes where the mother’s ignorance of food values is matched by her indifference to them.’ Despite such snobbery, there was also much to commend school meals: they meant that children could stay at school and, after a quick lunch, enjoy breaktime with their friends. School meals also relieved mothers of the need to be at home, making it easier for them to look for work during the day.

Lingering decline

At their peak, school meals were eaten by 70 per cent of pupils. But successive governments began to reduce the subsidies for school food. The unravelling of school food provision is often thought to have begun in 1970 when, as education secretary, Margaret Thatcher raised the cost of school meals and withdrew free school milk from secondary school pupils (hence the chant, ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher’). However, as Charles Webster points out, the process had actually started two years earlier under Harold Wilson’s Labour government, when the cost of a meal went up from one shilling to one shilling and six pence – a 50 per cent rise. A further rise of three pence was implemented in 1969.

In 1980, Margaret Thatcher – now prime minister – started to run down the school-meals service. Nutritional standards were scrapped and local authorities were now only obliged to provide meals to poorer children. Free school milk was abolished altogether. Competitive tendering meant that many school meals were ‘contracted out’ from local authorities to private contractors and the number of children eligible for free meals was further reduced by the Social Security Act 1986.

In an important sense, though, the original job of the school meal was done. Poverty of the kind described by Booth and Rowntree was a thing of the past. The poorest children could still rely on a free school meal, but the vast majority of parents were in a position to buy a meal or supply a packed lunch.

Indeed, another pressure on the school-meals service came from the fact that children had far greater choice than in the past. As Maria Cross and Barbara MacDonald note: ‘Children were starting to reject the standard “school dinner” in favour of more enticing, if less nutritious, options that had become available to them. The 1970s saw the birth of a new consumer culture which offered children more choice. The way food was prepared and served also underwent transformations: the school kitchen was increasingly replaced by cook-freeze and cook-chill centres and canteen-style dining rooms and snack bars were gaining popularity.’ The school meal as an emergency benefit in the face of real poverty appeared to be going out of fashion. Now it had to compete for business, and it was losing.

Back to the canteen

However, by the late 1990s, there were concerns about how far things had been allowed to slide. The Labour government elected in 1997 introduced some basic guidelines, limiting the number of times per week foods like chips and beans could be served in primary schools and ensuring that fresh fruit was available at least twice per week. Others, like Nottinghamshire school dinner lady Jeanette Orrey and the Child Poverty Action Group, campaigned for school meals to be improved. In her book, The Dinner Lady, Orrey calls this ‘the era of the processed dinner’, unhappy that ‘many children, for whom the school dinner might be the only substantial meal of the days, were not, to my mind, being fed properly’.

But the real turning point was Jamie Oliver’s TV series-cum-crusade, Jamie’s School Meals. Oliver went into a south London secondary school, Kidbrooke, with the aim of improving the quality of the lunches on offer. He revealed that school meals no longer meant cooking from scratch with basic ingredients. Rather, packets of frozen meal elements like burgers and pizzas were simply opened, dumped into metal trays, and heated up. Oliver’s aim was to revive the practice of cooking from fresh, on-site. However, it quickly became apparent that producing a satisfying meal with ingredients that cost a mere 37 pence per head was a challenge even for a superstar chef like Oliver.

However laudable Oliver’s aim of improving the menu, he made some scandalous claims about the food then on offer and the possible consequences of the ‘obesity epidemic’, the scare stories about which were at their height at the time. He claimed that children would die before their parents because of obesity; that some children were so fat and constipated they were vomiting their own faeces; that the diet of processed food was leading to an epidemic of asthma. None of these claims stood up to any serious examination.

But Jamie Oliver was simply the front man, the star turn, in the new paternalism of school meals. The aim of school meals now goes well beyond simply preventing children from being hungry. Instead, those humble lunches are now about saving children from their own (and their parents’) bad choices. Food, it is suggested, must become the centrepiece of school life. Eating the ‘right’ foods leads to better attainment and better health, we are told. The dining hall becomes the hub of the school community, providing common purpose where once it was lacking. Nutrition seeps into every aspect of the curriculum, to which compulsory cooking lessons are added. Remaking the school meal becomes a strategy for remaking the next generation of citizens.

So the New Labour government’s School Meals Panel declared in its report in September 2005: ‘In formulating these standards we considered children’s needs across a broad spectrum: physical, social and educational. We paid attention not only to purely nutritional requirements but also to the wider issues: what children learn about preparing food themselves; lifelong cooking skills; the social benefits of sitting down to a shared meal; and the importance of an approach which is environmentally sustainable.’

The School Food Plan, commissioned by the current UK education secretary Michael Gove and written by the founders of the Leon Restaurant chain, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, states at the outset: ‘This plan is about good food and happiness. It is about the pleasures of growing, cooking and eating proper food. It is also about improving the academic performance of our children and the health of our nation.’ That’s an awful lot to achieve simply by making lunches a bit better.

Meanwhile, parental influence is routinely demonised. The school meal is regarded as vital because it may be the only hot meal children receive. (This is surely the exception, not the rule.) Packed lunches must be regulated lest they do not meet the nutritional standards of school meals. Better still, packed lunches should be banned altogether either because they are unhealthy or because they divert parental cash from propping up the school-meals service. Parents are widely assumed to make the wrong choices, foolishly giving their children what they think they will actually eat rather than what they should eat, or choosing to make a packed lunch because it is often much cheaper than the school meal. Meanwhile, the home is viewed as a site of culinary abuse, an endless parade of nutrition-lite ready meals and takeaways, while the school meal is a model of what should be desired. In the world of school meals, in loco parentis – ‘in place of the parents’ – is taken all too literally. From breakfast clubs and mid-morning snacks to after-school food, there may come a time when parents get little opportunity to feed their offspring at all.

If parents are viewed with suspicion, then local takeaways are viewed as the enemy. Fast-food outlets within easy reach of the school gate are increasingly being banned or restricted. For example, Salford Council in north-west England has proposed ‘restrictions on the operation of hot food takeaways around schools to support and encourage children to make healthier eating options’. In other words, banning lunchtime sales to schoolchildren.

Other councils have simply refused licences to takeaways near schools. In 2009, officials shut down a restaurant in east London in part because it was too close to a school. In St Helen’s, the council’s head of regeneration told Channel 4’s Dispatches, in terms more reminiscent of The Alamo than local planning, that it would resist a well-known pizza joint opening near to a school: ‘We will defend all applications that come in the exclusion zone whether it be Domino’s or any other operator.’

School meals should be a convenient service to take the pressure of feeding children off parents, and to a degree they do that. But in recent years, in particular, they have also become a locus for paternalism. The underlying message is that children must be protected from themselves and from their parents, and it is the state that will do the protecting. Moreover, school lunches and the wider school curriculum are now seen as vehicles for indoctrinating children about the ‘right’ foods and the ‘right’ way to eat. In turn, children are used to put pressure on parents to change their own eating habits, too. Under the cover of providing a bit more variety and quality to school lunches, a whole swathe of manipulation and regulation has been unleashed by the school-meals crusade.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.

Picture: Chris Radburn/PA Archive/Press Association Images

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