Bee Wil­son on the Tory threat

Free school meals are not just about pro­vid­ing ba­sic nutri­tion – though too many chil­dren are re­ly­ing on them for that rea­son – they are also a vi­tal step in learn­ing about food and well­be­ing. We aban­don them at our peril ...

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Bee Wil­son Bee Wil­son is a food jour­nal­ist and au­thor. Her lat­est book is Con­sider the Fork, a his­tory of in­ven­tion in the kitchen; @kitchen­bee

We should not be talk­ing about school break­fasts or school lunches, but both ...

In 1908, at ta­bles laid with fresh cloths, more than 3,000 of the poor­est school chil­dren of Brad­ford sat down to eat a two-course lunch ev­ery week­day. In the cen­tre of each ta­ble was a vase of flow­ers. These were the ideas of Ralph Crow­ley, a med­i­cal of­fi­cer in Brad­ford who helped rev­o­lu­tionise school food in the UK.

Of­ten, it feels as if we have made no progress in a cen­tury. On hear­ing that Theresa May was plan­ning to “save” £650m by scrap­ping free school lunches for in­fants and re­plac­ing them with cheaper break­fasts, my first thought was: what would Crow­ley say? But since he died in 1953, I waited in­stead for Jamie Oliver’s re­sponse. A tear­ful Jamie gave an in­ter­view to Chan­nel 4 at­tack­ing the pro­posal as “short-sighted” and “aw­ful”. He pointed out that the short-term sav­ings of scrap­ping the free lunches would be eclipsed by the long-term costs to the pub­lic purse of child­hood obe­sity and type 2 di­a­betes caused by bad di­ets.

Jamie’s right. It’s shock­ing that just 12 years af­ter he (and other cam­paign­ers such as din­ner lady Jeanette Or­rey) worked to se­cure new healthy school food stan­dards in Bri­tain, the value of de­cent school lunches should once again be ques­tioned. Whole­some school lunches may not be enough by them­selves to trans­form the health of a child who sub­sists on chips and sug­ary pop the rest of the time, but nor are they in­signif­i­cant. Around 900,000 chil­dren from strug­gling fam­i­lies are set to lose their lunch en­ti­tle­ment when the free meals are re­pealed. In a Bri­tain where only 16% of chil­dren eat the rec­om­mended five-a-day of veg­eta­bles and fruit, free school lunches are a sound in­vest­ment in na­tional health. Some say univer­sal free meals are a su­per­flu­ous lux­ury for the mid­dle classes, but all chil­dren ben­e­fit when the whole school is in­vested in the can­teen, not least be­cause school kitchens need a cer­tain level of take-up just to break even.

Some things are worth spend­ing money on. At my own chil­dren’s pri­mary school, I’ve watched the free school meals for in­fants trans­form the way that chil­dren re­late to eat­ing in those early years. When ev­ery­one eats the same lunches, teach­ers have told me that it’s eas­ier to teach lessons on healthy eat­ing, be­cause ev­ery­one has ac­cess to the same in­gre­di­ents. For my youngest (aged 8) and his friends, school lunches have be­come a (mostly) lovely shared ex­pe­ri­ence, as col­lec­tive a part of the day as assem­bly.

When my two teenagers were at pri­mary, by con­trast, the school meals ser­vice was some­thing that most fam­i­lies dipped in and out of, leav­ing only the poor­est stuck with and stig­ma­tised by their hot lunches.

Sub­si­dis­ing lunch for all fam­i­lies is not very “sen­si­ble” says the Tory man­i­festo, as if feed­ing chil­dren were sim­ply throw­ing gold into so many thank­less mouths. But school lunch at its best is not just about sat­is­fy­ing hunger – cru­cial as that is. It’s about hav­ing time to sit with your friends and share some­thing. It’s about dis­cov­er­ing that maybe fish pie is not so scary, but might be de­li­cious be­cause the cook served it to you with such a kind smile. It’s about well­be­ing, that thing we talk about so much and en­joy so lit­tle.

School break­fasts can serve many of these func­tions too – as the ex­cel­lent work of the char­ity Magic Break­fast con­firms – but most chil­dren don’t ar­rive at school early enough to ben­e­fit from them. The pro­posal for univer­sal free school break­fasts feels like a cyn­i­cal move de­lib­er­ately de­signed so that the fewest peo­ple will take it up.

The voice I wish we could hear now is that of Ralph Crow­ley. He would have said that we should not be talk­ing about school break­fasts or school lunches, but both. The whole point of school meals is to en­sure that ev­ery child has the nutri­tion needed to learn across the whole day. In con­trast to May, Crow­ley saw the mid­day meal as the most im­por­tant – the best chance to give a child pro­tein and veg­eta­bles. But he also in­sisted that chil­dren who ar­rived hun­gry in the morn­ing should be given fill­ing break­fasts of por­ridge, milk or co­coa and “whole­meal cur­rant loaf” be­fore the first lessons.

Thanks to Crow­ley, Brad­ford schools once had meals that were fa­mous in ed­u­ca­tional cir­cles through­out the world. As in other Bri­tish cities, teach­ers in Brad­ford had been hor­ri­fied at the large num­ber of chil­dren ar­riv­ing at school too hun­gry to learn (an­other prob­lem that, scan­dalously, has not gone away). Af­ter the School Meals Act of 1906, Lo­cal Au­thor­i­ties had the power to serve free school meals for the first time. Nowhere took up the chal­lenge with more en­thu­si­asm than Brad­ford un­der Crow­ley. More than 100 years ago, he saw that school meals not only sup­ported a child’s learn­ing but were a form of ed­u­ca­tion in them­selves, hence his in­sis­tence on table­cloths and flow­ers. School meals, he saw, were a chance for chil­dren to learn new tastes and so­cial skills.

Ben­e­fits like these might be dif­fi­cult to mea­sure but they are cer­tainly vi­tal. To treat school lunches as a waste­ful tri­fle shows we are the ones who need ed­u­cat­ing in what food re­ally means.

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