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Karen Kay on the cold, hard truth about school meals

PUBLISHED: 16:07 17 October 2014 | UPDATED: 16:07 17 October 2014

Picture by Ian McIlgorm © IAN MCILGORM 2012

Picture by Ian McIlgorm © IAN MCILGORM 2012

© IAN MCILGORM 2012..

A lunchtime meal is essential for growing children, but Karen sees a policy riddled with problems that’s leaving parents doubting its value

No sooner had the schools gone back and the mists of autumn begun to descend upon the Chilterns, than the great school meals fiasco imploded. It was Nick Clegg who announced with much fanfare a year ago that as of the new academic year 2014, all reception, year one and year two children would enjoy free hot school meals every day.

In principle, it sounds like a great idea: a nourishing, life-enhancing policy from a government which considers education to be about more than just than the three Rs. In truth, the idea was as clever as a soggy semolina. As parents polished their offspring’s Startrites and diligently sewed name labels into cardigans over the holidays, school heads and governors were frantically trying to establish how they could possibly deliver the policy.

When I gave birth to my daughter she came with the full expectation that she was another mouth to feed in our household. While we’re certainly not flush with cash, putting healthy food in our mouths is at the top of our list of non-negotiable expenses.

What I don’t expect is to receive free meals for my child when I have the ability to pay for them. I am proud of the fact that we have a social welfare system that supports those who need it: I am happy that my taxes are partly there to help those who face adversity in their life. I wholeheartedly support the idea that our country offers free school meals for parents who struggle to put food on their table. Providing a nutritionally-balanced meal for a child in the middle of the day is not only essential fuel for their growing bodies, but studies show that it improves concentration and the brain’s ability to process information.

The findings of the ‘School Food Plan’ commissioned by the government, stated “many parents mistakenly imagine that a packed lunch is the healthiest option. In fact, it is far easier to get the necessary nutrients into a cooked meal – even one of mediocre quality. Only one per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that currently apply to school food.”

“This country faces a serious health crisis caused by bad diet. Almost 20 per cent of children are already obese by the time they leave primary school at 11. Diet-related illnesses are putting a huge strain on the nation’s coffers – costing the NHS £10 billion every year. We need to tackle the problem now, before the costs (both personal and financial) become too heavy to bear.”

At one combined school near me in South Bucks, there is a fantastic approach to healthy eating, with an 87 per cent uptake on hot lunches cooked there.

Much of the produce is locally-sourced, some even grown on-site as part of a gardening club. The feedback from children is that the food is fabulous, and they all participate in a monthly ‘farmers’ market’ designed to involve them and give them an understanding of the field to fork process.

The School Food Plan recommends an approach that weaves food education – cooking, growing vegetables, even modest efforts at animal husbandry – into school 
life and the curriculum, and that cooking lessons should be made a part of the national curriculum for all children up to the age of 14.

Great news. But here’s the thing: many schools don’t have kitchen facilities. Certainly, in the smaller infant schools scattered throughout villages, we are looking at one oven at best, often in a staff room, and certainly not designed to provide meals for dozens of children.

Where there were once catering facilities in Victorian school buildings, now stand classrooms, straining at the seams under the weight of pupil numbers.

At the start of the new school year, most smaller schools in Bucks were unable to say how they would implement the policy, so families were still sending children in with packed lunches. As the term rolled on, hub kitchens began delivering packed lunches to schools containing sandwiches, and on some days, cake – on the whole, not the kind of nourishing fare I want my child to eat on a daily basis.

As I write, we are still awaiting a plan for the delivery of hot meals, which are likely to come in airline-style form, on pre-heated trays, wheeled into schools ready for distribution to hungry children. I remain open-minded, but suspect many families may revert back to packed lunches.

Rather than promising free meals for a whole swathe of society, surely government should have proposed a serious injection of funding, designed to help schools produce quality hot meals on their own premises, paid for by parents who can afford it, and free to those who need it.

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