The lunchtime revolution: is it really so bad?

Parents are angry.

My twitter feed is buzzing with irate mums blogging about the apparently outrageous proposals for banning packed lunches.
It’s easy to see why this would get people’s back’s up. Parents, on the whole, want what’s best for their children and do their best to give them the best start in life. Many mums and dads prepare nutritious, healthy lunches with care and attention in the morning, sending their little ones off to school with enough fuel to help them through the day.

Why should they pay out for school dinners? They have no idea what they will be, they don’t know what the ingredients are or how they are prepared. They also cost money, possibly more money than it would cost to make a sandwich. Finally there’s the issue of trust. How dare the government imply that they can provide better for my child better than I can?
They’re all fair points. In many ways the idea that we ban parents from feeling their own children, instead dictating what – and even how – they eat is preposterous; the ‘nanny state’ at its worst.

The sceptics among us may even have spotted that the report was conducted not by the government or anyone connected with education but by John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, the founders of the food company Leon. I’ve yet to read anywhere why they have conducted this survey and perhaps, like Jamie Oliver before them, they are just well-meaning gastronomic philanthropists, hell bent on saving our children from poor nutrition and obesity. However, you can’t help think that as privatisation creeps more and more into our public services, there is something suspicious about a commercial food organisation producing a report recommending that parents should be forced to pay for their children’s lunch rather than provide it themselves.

Yes, there are many reasons why parents might be angry. But could there possibly be any good reasons for taking this action?

Raising children is the responsibility of that child’s parents. It should be that simple. Unfortunately, it rarely is. For every parent who lovingly prepares a perfectly healthy and nutritious meal for their child to take to school, there will be numerous others who are too busy and fall back on convenience. For every parents who is well aware of the need for ‘five-a-day’ there will be those who are ignorant of the details of nutrition and simply don’t realise what should go in a growing child’ lunch*. For every parent who bans all traces of junk food from the house, there will be plenty who are just too trusting, giving their children money to ‘pick something up on the way’ resulting in a less than nutritious combination of crisps, fizzy pop and gummy sweets right before they have to sit through an hour long maths exam. Then, sadly, there are always a few parents who just don’t really care.

In cases where parents and carers are struggling to do what’s best for the child, schools have to step in. Often issues can be addressed on an individual basis: students not getting academic support at home may get extra tuition at school; those with nowhere quiet to study get access to homework clubs; those who are vulnerable are given extra support by relevant professionals.

In many people’s eyes lunches are not on the same scale as these issues. Yet food is one of the most important factors in a child’s physical and academic well being. It’s often obvious to me as a teacher if a student hasn’t had breakfast from their inability to concentrate, and when a teenager charges into the classroom at 2 o’clock shouting and unable to settle, I could put money on the cause being an overload of e-numbers and sugar. Schools are there to educate children, and they can’t do that properly if they’re not well fed.

‘But my child IS well fed!’ I hear you scream.

Maybe so, but sometimes you have to take actions which affect the majority to make sure a minority don’t suffer.

Every week I make my year 8 class sit and read for an hour. Nothing else, just read. I check their books, I make suggestions for future reading, I have a chat with them about their books, then they sit and read.

Every week some of the students whine ‘But I read loads at home Miss’, and for a few it’s probably true. But many of them don’t, or if they do it’s with the TV blaring in the background and with their smart phone blinking at their side. So I make everyone read; the ones who don’t read at home gain something they never would have otherwise, the ones who do don’t suffer and often get more out of it than they expect.

Maybe the same is true of school lunches. Many would benefit from being forced to eat a healthy, hot meal everyday and, in reality, no one really suffers.

I’ve worked in a school where this was the rule and I’m not saying there weren’t problems: some parents refused to pay up if their child didn’t like the meals causing endless admin nightmares for the school office; on fish day, endless plates of food were wasted as children picked round the edges then filled up on sponge pudding; staff were forced to eat with the students to encourage healthy eating habits and table manners and, while it was great to get a free meal every day (and the food was lovely!) tensions were often strained by 4pm as teachers and students had no real breaks from each other.

If asked to, I could probably join the hoards of ‘angry mums’ and write a whole blog against the enforcement of mandatory school lunches, but that would be too easy.

Maybe instead we should pause to think about why this is being done and who might actually benefit.

Besides, I’m a working mum and anything that means you don’t have to stand manically throwing together sandwiches while you glug your coffee in the morning sounds like a good idea to me.

*It is worth noting here that the report states that 1% of school packed lunches meet recommended nutritional standards.


6 responses

  1. Good post. I was a tweeter who questioned another swoop in of the nanny state, frustrated the emphasis was on removal of choice rather than education on how to improve packed lunches or the merits of what is offered in the schools. But I see your point and think its a valid one. I still think there are logistical issues in terms of of wastage, cost and lack of choice but you’ve made me consider another perspective.

    1. Thanks. I’m not convinced banning packed lunches is the right answer and don’t really know what is but I think it does have merits that need considering. Glad the post made you think.

  2. I try to use organic food and wholefood. A return to turkey twizzlers and horsemeat burgers so someone can make a profit is not acceptable

    1. I think part of the point is that if students couldn’t eat packed lunches then it would force those in charge to improve the quality of school dinners. Also, as someone who has worked in schools for five years I have never seen a ‘turkey twizzler’ or anything remotely similar on the school menu. The concept of people making profit out of kids in schools does make me feel uncomfortable though.

  3. I am not particularly angry. I am curious about where a school believes it draws authority to ban packed lunches. Surely not by stretching, to the point of abuse, the ‘in loco parentis’ doctrine. I am a member of support staff at a Scottish secondary school and my wife holds the same position at another secondary school. I have also worked in a primary school. We have 4 children, 2 secondary and 2 late primary, who all carry a packed lunch. We have no plans to change this arrangement and do not feel any need to provide a reason for this view. Is there some previously unknown legal loophole allowing a school to act like this? I would think that a private school has a lot more wriggle room than one in the state sector. Is the whole situation handled differently under English law?

    1. Thanks for the comment.
      I’m not sure about the legality of it but the school where I experienced the ‘no packed lunch’ rule was a new school and did it from the start. It was very much a part of their school identity so parents knew they were agreeing to it when they applied. Not sure how it would work if a school tried to Introduce the idea with existing students. Also a bit easier in London where there are more schools in each area so there are other options.

      To be honest, I don’t see it happening across the board any time soon!

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