The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.

8:51am on Monday, 21st March, 2005:

School Dinners


The government is set to announce a package of measures to improve the lot of the child. This is probably good news (it depends on the details).

If only they weren't being so cynical.

There's going to be a general election this year, probably on May 5th. Children are important now because their parents will be voting in that general election. If ministers are so worried about children, why wait until now to announce their "mini-manifesto" on the subject? Why not do it earlier? Have they held off on helping children until now in order that they will get more votes?

Actually, no, they haven't. They've not been paying children any more or any less attention than has any other government. My guess is that they had a few things in the pipeline anyway that they were working on, and that they've collected the announcements for these together so they could give the appearance that they weren't being opportunistic with the package's big headline-grabber: school dinners.

School dinners (or school meals, as they are properly referred to — my mum used to be the cook in charge of a school kitchen so I know a little about this) are generally regarded as unhealthy and primarily junk food. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that given a choice kids prefer chips to sprouts. If a school puts on both a healthy option and a junk option, they'll sell much more of the junk than they will of the healthy. If they put on two healthy options, the kids bring in sandwiches instead. Parents were content to let this situation prevail until a recent Channel 4 TV programme which exposed the full horror of what their little darlings were eating. The outcry was such that the government reacted; the cobbling together of a few other child-friendly policies to display alongside "improving school dinners" doesn't disguise their naked opportunism.

Both my children take sandwiches to school. Both of them used to have school meals, and I'm a staunch supporter of school meals. If they could have school meals, I'd let them. However, they can't.

My elder daughter can't have them because her form room (where her locker is) is far from what passes for the school canteen. There are only a few serving points, so by the time she gets there the queues are long. The healthy salady and pasta meals she wants run out before she gets to them. She could buy healthy salady sandwiches from a machine, but they all have mayonnaise in them and she hates the stuff. If she wanted a hot meal (my preference for her), she'd have to wait in line for the burger and chips menu. Thus, she takes in sandwiches and has a cold one.

My younger daughter can't have school meals because the school doesn't do them. Essex County Council used to run the school meals service, then last year it discovered it didn't have to so cut it rather than raise council taxes. The responsibility fell to the individual schools at very short notice. No hot meals service could be arranged, so now they do sandwiches shipped in from somewhere further along the A12. Pretty well the only children who have these sandwiches are the ones entitled to free school meals. Everyone else brings in their own, because at least that way they'll like them. The sandwich "meals" are supposedly nutritionally balanced, but if they weren't made the day before they certainly taste like they were...

So although the government's sudden calculated interest in school meals may have its positive side, the fact they haven't looked into the subject deeply would suggest that much of the money will be wasted. It's no use putting new equipment for cooking meals into the West Bergholt school kitchen because it doesn't have a cook. It's no use doing it for the other school's kitchen because they already have it (they just don't have a big enough serving area).

As usual with governments, they'll probably get away with this.

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Copyright © 2005 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).