Saturday, 8 February 2014

Free School Meals for all KS1 children.

My brother's triplets start school in September. I can't believe that they are going to be 4 in June and heading off to the heady heights of big school. You can imagine how pleased my brother and his wife were when they heard the news that they wouldn't have to be paying three lots of school lunch bills. However, I am not sure the triplets will be so chuffed to be faced with the offerings school provides...

As someone who works in a school the whole idea of free school meals for all raises quite a few questions. Initially I thought "Great! What a good idea!" but then I thought about the practicalities and reality of life in school and changed my mind.

Proponents of the plan say that children with a hot meal in their tummies at lunch time perform better, are better behaved and achieve better results academically. Well, that's got to be good, surely? It would be good if it was achievable, but is it?

Schools have an hour and ten minutes to get their children into the dining room (if they are lucky enough to have one and not just a shared space for assemblies, gym etc), serve them, have the children eat their food and be ready for the afternoon. That's 70 minutes to get them all in and out. I know that my school just manages to do this by using staggered sittings, but if they were faced with more children  to get through ... would they be able to do it? Lunchtime becomes a conveyor belt of children .... in, eat, out ....  as quickly as you can.

When I was a child I had the luxury of sitting at a table with the table laid, proper plates, a teacher or older child to serve our food. We would have time to talk and learn table manners from the older children. Now the students are given plastic prison trays with their food slopped on - main meal and pudding all on the same tray. Huge numbers of children don't know how to use a knife and fork and don't eat half the food. The waste at the end of the lunch hour is massive.

And that's another problem... If the children were given beautifully cooked meals consisting of fresh ingredients, interesting flavours, good quality products, then that would be amazing. But that doesn't happen, does it? School cooks, I am sure, vary in their abilities from school to school, but I don't think that anyone (despite Jamie Oliver's efforts) could claim that every school was lucky enough to have superb cooks offering Oliveresque menus. I see the ingredients that are delivered  for our kitchens and the main driver is money. The mince is cheap, frozen ... the quality of the food is not what I would choose to eat and I certainly wouldn't want my children eating it.

When my son was at Primary school he had school lunches, but used to come home tired, bad tempered, and damn hungry. He was used, at home, to eating good quality, tasty food, cooked from scratch. All of a sudden at school he was faced with sauceless pasta, gristly meat and tiny portions. My brother's triplets eat well at the moment. They enjoy all sorts of food - from fish to olives and from hummus to gherkins. But if faced with school food are they really going to enjoy it? My son changed to packed lunches because I knew that I could fill his lunch box with fresh, healthy, tasty food that he would definitely eat. The change in him was immediate and amazing. He had energy, was happy and was full of enthusiasm.

Another problem is the lack of kitchen facilities. Our school has a large, well equipped kitchen, but many schools to do not. Kitchens will need to be refurbed, equipped and extra staff brought in to cook the food. When and how will this happen?

Will every child have a HOT meal? That was what Nick Clegg wanted ... but will it actually happen?

If all of these problems could be overcome then I would imagine it would be great. If children could be given a hot, flavoursome meal, made from scratch from decent ingredients, which left them feeling full, satisfied and ready for the afternoon then that would be wonderful. But is that going to happen? I very much doubt it. As a parent I would rather give my children a packed lunch than have them eat school meals. My apologies to those of you who work in school kitchens because I know you work very hard but you work under massive constraints of time, equipment and set menus over which there is little room for manoeuvre. How you will cope with even more children I really don't know.

In an ideal world this plan would be lovely, but the world is not ideal is it? Schools are not restaurants and the minimum amount of money is spent per child therefore you are not going to get great quality food. It is mass catering with the aim of providing food as cheaply as possible and serving it as quickly as possible to get the children through and out the other side. The supporters of Universal Free School Meals whom I have heard speak about the plan have great intentions, but their intentions seem to be based on unachievable ideals. I question whether giving free meals to all KS1 children will actually increase academic achievement. I hope it does. I hope, come September, that the school system will be filled with chirpy, rosy cheeked children, sitting at their tables with full tummies and keen minds.

However, I really don't think this is going to happen.

Maybe we should spend money improving the quality of school meals generally and think about those children who already receive free lunches. Surely their need is greatest and improving the food they eat would help them?

Maybe we should spend more thought on the children who come into school having had no breakfast, with dirty clothes and no support. Maybe we should think about the children whose parents have to fight for specialist help because they won't be statemented until well into their school career. Maybe we should think about the classrooms with no pencils, paint or glue sticks by the Spring term - whose teachers have to go out and buy them with their own money....just a thought.


Urban Cynic said...

I agree with the standard of the food - they feed children pig swill. Carb, additive and sugar-laden rubbish that does nothing to help develop their little minds.

Equally shocking is the food they give to the sick in hospitals. Places where healthy food is vital to their wellbeing and recovery. Incredible.

When you have (assumably morbidly obese) parents feeding (horse) beefburgers to their kids through the school railings you do wonder what the hell is wrong with people.

sarah at secret housewife said...

They talk a good game, but the reality is horrible. I certainly wouldn't eat it. As for hospital food - that's even worse and they have a captive audience.

Natasha Alexander said...

My children's primary school's menu sounds very healthy etc but I've never tasted it (although they did do a day where we could come etc but I had to leave before lunch was served). My youngest starts in September and wouldn't mind him having a meal occasionally - I prefer to give them sandwiches as don't think they need 2 x cooked meals a day. I don't think they burn enough calories to warrant that. I think this could possibly make the meals worse as it will really be about cost cutting.

sarah at secret housewife said...

Hi Natasha. I agree. The menu does sound ok and the photos they put up look tasty, but the reality is a long way from the pictures. I think every parent has to make up their own mind as to what suits their children because every school kitchen is different. I do think its a shame that they are going through with this idea when the money could be spent more wisely elsewhere.
Thanks for commenting!

Caroline said...

I think the money could be spent much more wisely. My youngest son's school has no kitchen, the meals are brought in.

On the occasions my children have had dinners, they have been carbohydrate based stodge. My sons have a more varied, healthier meal in their packed lunches.

I can guarantee that my sons will eat their packed lunches but I doubt they'd eat school dinners.

Morgan Prince said...

My boys have packed lunch, they're both picky eaters and would probably come home hungry. I'm with you on this one.

New Mum Online said...

Oh God I am dreading Aaron starting school in September even more now.

Great post though.

Liska x

sarah at secret housewife said...

Thanks for commenting Caroline, Morgan and New Mum!I think as parents everyone will do whats best for their children. I've always thought that I need to give them a good hot meal at tea time so I know for sure that they are getting the right nutrition. I like packed lunches over school lunches because I can see and control what they are eating during the day.
Don't worry about Aaron, New Mum ... he wil be ok!