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Why school dinners are still proving a hot potato

By West Briton  |  Posted: September 13, 2012

Penair School's headline-grabbing chef John Rankin.

Penair School's headline-grabbing chef John Rankin.

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EVER since the iconic images of parents stuffing fast food through school gates like deranged chimpanzees on the wrong side of the bars, the fight over school dinners as launched by Jamie Oliver back in 2006 has become anything but simple. Why? Because in the UK, food is inseparable from class.

To eat well means that you are probably a snob. Really. Hugh F-W got it in the neck for telling Tesco shoppers to cut down on cheap chicken and invest in a more expensive humanely-reared bird on the basis that it could be used for more meals, right down to the last scurrick.

He was, ahem, hen-pecked into the ground for doing so and while it is unfortunate that he did so in such a well-spoken manner, the facts are that wellbeing and health are essentially classless: death IS the great leveller and will come for you in tweeds or shellsuit regardless.

On that basis, and no other should we consider food and most importantly: our children's food.

We have the highest rate of obesity in Europe, 25 per cent of kids are overweight or obese and current estimations are that obesity, and its related problems, cost the NHS a massive £4 billion a year. Not to mention the effect of poor nutrition on children's behaviour, performance and self-esteem in school. This is not rocket science, it is apocalyptic.

School dinners or packed lunches account for about a third of every child's daily food intake and approximately one half of Britain's seven million schoolchildren eat a packed lunch.

According to a study carried out by Leeds University in 2010, only 1.1 per cent of packed lunches then met the nutritional standards of a school dinner.

The study looked at 1,300 lunchboxes taken to school by pupils aged 8 and 9 and found that crisps, sweets and sugary drinks took precedence over fruit, vegetables and milk-based products.

Poor packed lunches have nothing to do with class. Let's face it: a Fruit Shoot costs more than an apple. A packet of crisps? More than a banana. And the price of brown bread over white bread is not going to send you into arrears on your mortgage payments.

Sending kids off to school with the nutritional equivalent of a type 2 diabetes time bomb and expecting them to concentrate in class is either ignorant, lazy, irresponsible or all three.

One of the arguments from an anti-Oliver burger-pushing mum was that Jamie's meals made kids too "picky" and they preferred to skip lunch completely. So how does that explain the almost cult-like status of maverick school chef John Rankin at Penair School in Truro?

The bandana-clad, former white water rafting instructor turned chef has kids eating frogs' legs, camel, braised python and snails. Where only 30 kids a day used to queue for lunch, there are now 400. Picky or just over indulged?

Never has the issue of eating at school been such a hot potato – a cash-strapped Spain will be charging three euros for children to bring in a packed lunch from September. Since the economic crisis, Spanish parents have been saving money by packing lunches and subsequently schools are losing vital funds normally made by selling hot meals.

Earlier this year, nine-year-old food blogger, Martha Payne, had over five million hits on her NeverSeconds blog which documented her school meals in pictures and used a rating system based on health and the number of mouthfuls for each meal. The blog was banned, then not banned, and now Martha is very nobly using her internet fame to raise money for charity.

The default argument to Jamie Oliver's School Dinners campaign is: nanny state. Who is he to tell us how to feed our kids? Why should we listen to him? Who does he think he is? The answer? He's a professional and we turn to professionals for advice and expertise.

Packing your kids a decent lunch has nothing to do with class, money or the nanny state. We simply owe it to our next generation.

If you have any helpful healthy lunch suggestions or feel strongly about this argument then leave your comments at saffronbunny.wordpress.com

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