School meals have been thrust into the political spotlight recently. But how do they fit in to wider patterns of children’s food today?
As a general rule, all children in Britain have a terrible diet. Perhaps a few more affluent children get rather better food, but the overall picture is appalling — and it’s not getting any better.
There are problems across the range, from the sort of garbage that is marketed as lunchbox snacks, to the whole “cash rich, time poor” idea that nobody has the time to cook any longer.
There are hardly any family meals these days, if any. Instead there’s staggered snacking from the microwave or the freezer. The food industry has done a good job in Britain of brainwashing people. It has sold us a couple of very dangerous ideas.
The first is that we don’t have time to cook, so we should buy processed, pre-prepared foods. The second is that if you do have time to cook then you must be stuck away in the backwaters of modern life, you clearly haven’t made it to where the rest of society is. It’s a status symbol not to cook.
The supermarkets and the food industry are two sides of one coin. The basic factor is that they make far more money from processed food than non-processed food. The more things they can add, the more fancy ways they can package it, the higher the prices they can charge and the greater the profit.
There’s a limit to how much you can charge for a raw potato. But if you chop it up and put in lots of additives, colourings, starches, sugars and salt, then market it as a snack for children in a smiley face shape, you can charge a high price. It’s a licence to print money — if people can be persuaded to buy it.
The food industry has taken advantage of the fact that British people don’t have a strong food culture. We don’t have an intuitive sense of what is good food in the way that Spanish, French and German people do.
Instead we have a great respect for technology, progress and choice. The food industry plays on this to create the “food we like”.
How did the problem with school meals arise, and what impact has Jamie Oliver’s campaign had?
Many parents, even before Jamie Oliver, were very concerned about school meals and were demanding change. They were asking why we feed children such rubbish. There has been a move to break free from contractors and to start cooking with more local produce.
In1980 Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher did away with nutritional standards for school meals and introduced compulsory competitive tendering for all aspects of services. This meant that school meals were opened up to a bidding war, with the lowest tender generally winning the day.
Since then school meals have been on a downward spiral. But I sense we’ve now reached a turning point. People are no longer prepared to accept what their children are getting.
More schools are now cooking in their own premises, with more local food and with perhaps 10 percent of it organic. The situation is still appalling, but there is some change.
Of course this all has to be seen in a wider context of children’s eating. There’s an irony that Jamie Oliver has highlighted this issue of poor school meals, but at the same time he promotes Sainsbury’s — one of the forces that have pushed this notion of separate children’s food, the idea that children cannot eat what the rest of us eat.
Supermarkets have ghastly sections of children’s foods, which are much worse than other foods. What is children’s yoghurt, with all its additives and sweeteners? Why can’t they eat normal yoghurt?
Children are gullible and if you market heavily through television you can create a demand for highly profitable “children’s products”. So we end up with children getting food that is inferior to what most people eat.
In most cultures children are privileged and receive rather better than the rest. Here we have an attitude that children cannot be expected to eat good food. That’s seriously wrong.
In supermarkets now there is a segregation of food — adult’s food, children’s food, and pet food. This is all very convenient for the food industry. They are creating a generation of children who are ignorant about food.
So what can we do now to improve the quality of school meals?
The solution for school meals is simple: kick out all the contract caterers, reinvest in school kitchens, employ cooks locally to come in and cook from scratch using good ingredients. It will be slightly more expensive than present, but not hideously unaffordable.
Don’t give children a choice. Do as they do on the continent, where there is one three course meal and everyone eats it. If you must have a choice, give them a choice only between good things — don’t run turkey burger and chips against chickpea stew.
Take processed food out of the equation. You don’t need to concentrate so much on detailed nutritional standards if you don’t use powdered potato and so on.
There’s nothing complicated about this. But the government won’t do it because the food industry gets very annoyed at any attempt to interfere with its right to make money. Instead it puts the responsibility on parents and on schools themselves.
The government ought to just say that children need and deserve a nutritional meal, and that nothing else is acceptable. It doesn’t do that because it has such a cosy relationship with the food industry.
Joanna Blythman is an award-winning campaigner and writer. Her books include Shopped: the Shocking Power of British Supermarkets and The Food Our Children Eat: How to get Children to like Good Food.