Jayne Dowle: School food shouldn’t have to be a political hot potato

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I NEVER thought I would have to ring the school over a jacket potato. My eight-year-old daughter came home complaining that she was “starving”. Children moan all the time about being hungry. This was different though. Close questioning revealed that she had asked for jacket potato at lunch and been given one which didn’t sound much bigger than a satsuma.

The conversation with the head-teacher didn’t exactly reassure me. She came out with a string of words including “portion control” and “healthy eating”. All I wanted to know was that Lizzie was getting enough to eat during the day. And that the school meals I pay for were worth the money. Excuse me then if I don’t sound too grateful because school food is to be revised, yet again.

I can’t really see how Michael Gove’s new proposals are going to make much difference to the great jacket potato issue. He has promised a crackdown on fatty and sugary ingredients in school meals. He makes grand gestures about school milk for all pupils. Strict limits on fruit juice. And healthy snacks only at break-time, so nuts, seeds and fruit in place of sweets and chocolate.

To a parent, this makes total sense, perhaps with the omission of nuts and seeds. I don’t know many adults who would choose something resembling bird feed over a Mars Bar as a mid-morning pick-me-up, to be honest. I’m pleased that the Education Secretary is taking what our children eat at school so seriously. With two children of his own, it’s a matter close to his heart. However, his grand ideas, devised in consultation with his well-connected friend Henry Dimbleby of the Leon restaurant chain, are missing the point. They sound great in theory, but the practice is something rather different all together.

What we parents really want is for school food to be plentiful, warm, value-for-money and available in a safe and non-threatening environment. That it is also healthy and nutritious should be a given. Especially when you think of all the measures which have been made to improve standards already. We’ve come a long way from the days of Jamie Oliver intimidating the citizens of Rotherham with a Turkey Twizzler. If as much effort, money and celebrity support was available for hospital meals, there wouldn’t be an unhappy patient in the land.

Some of the stories I hear about school dinners would make Mr Gove choke on his quinoa. At one school I know, the food regularly runs out by the second sitting so there is never enough to go around. How would you feel if you handed over money in a café and only got half a plateful in return? I feel sorry for the dinner ladies. They are given their budget and instructions from on high. Imagine what it must be like to tell a hungry child that there’s no more.

Then there’s the bullying and intimidation. Even at primary school. One friend tells me that her little girl came home crying and saying that the boys were picking on her. It turns out that she was being bullied for putting salad on her plate. The boys were calling her a “snob” and other insults too rude to put in a newspaper. These children were nine and 10. Do you think the Education Secretary has any idea this goes on when he comes up with his idealistic notions about nuts and seeds? It’s all very well promising healthy food for our children. If it doesn’t go hand-in-hand with discipline and calm, you might as well chuck it all in the bin.

Also, as any parent should know, you can’t inflict a new eating regime on children overnight. Politicians tie themselves into knots over the provision of healthy food. They are right to be concerned about the nation’s health. Yet again though, they miss the point. Why do they think so many pupils shun school dinners in favour of packed lunches stuffed with crisps and chocolate biscuits? It doesn’t take a nutritionist to work out that children will only eat what they are familiar with.

And children hate change. I’ve got a friend who is a dinner lady. She says she dreads school Christmas dinner because she can’t persuade half the little ones to eat what is on their plate. Some of them have never seen meat unless it’s a sausage. Many won’t eat even basic vegetables such as carrots and peas because they don’t have to at home.

We hear so much about the importance of building links between home and school. Indeed, parents are now being threatened with legal sanctions if they don’t attend parents’ evenings or check that homework is completed. However, this strict new regime threatens to make that chasm even bigger and turn youngsters not just off school dinners, but off school altogether.

There’s no need to spend a fortune on revising guidelines and drawing up grand plans. Decent food in schools should just be there, without fuss or controversy. We parents don’t want yet another political hot potato. We just want enough potatoes for our children to eat.