Michelle Grady considers whether our school canteens ‘must try harder’ when it comes to feeding the nation’s offspring…
At the risk of sounding like my mother, school dinners just aren’t what they used to be – and I mean that in a good way. When I went to school (which seems like far too long ago) it was deemed perfectly acceptable to dole out a steady stream of chips, pizzas and Turkey Twizzlers with perhaps a side of peas if we were lucky. These days we’re a more health-conscious nation – thanks, of course, in part to Jamie Oliver’s much-publicised crusade against unwholesome school grub. It seems school kitchens have tried to clean up their act too, now dishing up a more varied diet to help Britain’s youngsters (there I go, sounding like my mum again) get their government-approved, five-a-day quota of fruit and veg.
But it seems the new-and-improved school canteen hasn’t ironed out all the kinks yet, if pupil Martha Payne’s food blog, NeverSeconds, is anything to go by. Nine-year-old Martha began photographing and rating her often dubious-looking school dinners in April this year, and has received over three million hits and counting. A quick scroll through her posts reveals a mixed bag; on a particularly good day, she was served a gammon steak with a healthy helping of veggies and potatoes, while on another she was presented with a not-so-promising lunch comprising a teeny burger, two bland-looking potato croquettes and three sad slices of cucumber. Surely such a paltry meal doth not a star pupil make?
Despite the blog raising money for the Mary’s Meals charity, Martha’s local council took the controversial decision to ban her from taking any more photos. Apparently they were concerned that her pictures didn’t represent the full range of food available, and for the school’s catering staff, who were in fear of losing their jobs due to the blog’s widespread media coverage. To me, this smacked of secrecy – why, if they were serving up consistently rounded meals fit for a growing nine-year-old, did they feel the need to hide what was being handed out in their canteens? Of course, Jamie Oliver stepped in to offer his support, tweeting ‘Stay strong Martha’ and urging his millions of followers to retweet the message. In the end, mob rule prevailed and Martha’s photo-taking rights were reinstated. She now receives photos from schoolchildren around the globe – who, by the way, often enjoy far better lunchtime fodder than kids this side of the pond.
So why, then, if there is still work to be done when it comes to feeding the next generation, does a recent survey suggest that we should ban pupils from leaving the school premises at lunchtimes? This new poll carried out by Luca, a company representing school catering managers, suggests that 73 per cent of 12,000 parents asked were in favour of stopping students up to the age of 16 leaving the school grounds at lunch. But if I was handed a solitary slice of pizza and a couple of cucumber slices, I’d be gagging to go out and buy extra provisions too – especially if I had an afternoon of maths and double science ahead of me. While I concur that anything that stops kids stocking up on junk food and getting up to mischief outside is only a good thing, perhaps schools should look at exactly why children want to scarper to the nearest shop at the first ring of the bell.
With restaurants increasing their efforts to offer varied children’s menus and parents doing their bit to cook healthy home meals, it would appear that while school dinners have come on leaps and bounds in recent years, they need to continue to up their game when it comes to offering kids nutritious meals that they actually want to tuck into.