A critical and irreverent eye is cast over the foodies’ intentions for school meals that may establish consumers’ tastes, choices, and health for life. Caterers and manufacturers must show much greater enterprise in exploiting possibilities well beyond cheesy off-loads from the dairy and meat industries. Scenarios for educational alternatives for the School Nativity play are mooted.
Vega acts on a consultation for the Department for education and skills.
Turning the Tables: Transforming School Food – Recommendations for the Development and Implementation of Revised School Lunch Standards
1. Special groups of children (and teachers, who we hope will be eating in common with the children) may constitute a diversity of minority sub-groups and exponents of extreme diets, whose needs – often apparently vexatious – need sympathy and attention (which may entail involvement of parents). A spirit of informed interest must be cultivated, aimed at avoiding alienation and possible teasing and bullying. Groups with dietary aversions would comprehend children with metabolic disorders, food intolerances, and allergies (e.g. celiacs, diabetics, lactose intolerance, and adverse reactions to dairy products, peanuts, and even certain fruits) and those with essentially religious (and health) motivations (such as vegetarians of all grades, Jews, Muslims, and “Friday Catholics”).
2. Policies aiming at segregated education, e.g. of certain religious types, may simplify some of these special challenges, but they are of limited resort and run counter to the principles informing occasions such as morning assembly and the meal times with the spirit of unsegregated learning and education.
3. One special meal may cater for a range of the special options. A strictly vegetarian meal could tastefully accommodate most, but only if it was relieved of the cheesy and eggy disqualifications that caterers fail to appreciate are outmoded and ignore enterprise by food producers to overcome. Vegetarian meals should be unequivocally the real thing: devoid of ingredients derived from animals and still in keeping with the portfolio of healthy dietaries compiled by doctors and nutritionist from the best in Mediterranean, Indian, and oriental cuisines. (The word vegan unnecessarily confuses the definitions and divisions).
4. Composition of foods tables can be interpreted too precisely and assessed without due allowance for gaps in nutritional knowledge. Current enthusiasms for reducing certain objectionable components may inadvertently subtend to deficiencies in essential requirements and aversions. Adolescent girls need special sympathy in this regard, especially if they are exhibiting signs of eating disorders. The emphasis on school dinners is tilted too far against the importance, for various sociological reasons, to provisions of a school breakfast followed appropriately by a light lunch. It has been suggested that a polypill of micronutrients should be available to cover any well-meaning fluctuations that attract the statisticians’ pedantry.
5. Screening of school children for essentials of health, function, and cognition must complement dietary programs, again with interactions with parents and the NHS.
6. Teachers have increasingly to assume parental care in the basics of first aid, dealing with diabetic and asthmatic episodes, and changes in children indicating developments in anemia or “growing pains”. Indication of eye or tooth problems may be spotted first by a caring teacher. Carers should themselves exemplify attention to and interest in the principles expounded to the children.
7. Education, education, education – goes the politicians’ cry, but it must carry much louder into modern curricula and appreciation of food and lifestyle. Demise of domestic science in the program has been ineffectually lamented, but the elements of agronomy and food choice must feature in courses in citizenship and be seen to be practised in school catering (as in other institutions such as hospitals). We are not sure that teachers, even in biology, could tell barley from wheat in the field, nor a Friesian from a Charolais in the barn, although they could easily distinguish a Ford from a Fiat. We may not aspire to perfect pitch in the culinary repertoire but should raise the national appreciation with grace notes delicately delivered to raise nutritional sensitivity from tone deafness in unalleviated gut fill.
8. Critics often aver that the modern child can’t even boil an egg, which is surely the archetypal convenience food. It is even likelier that the child has no inkling of the link of the egg with time of the year and of its origin and delivery, although the significance of time of the month to his or her mother and big sister would be a well rehearsed fact of life. To this end we followed this year’s televised Christmas lectures, delivered from the Royal Institution on Food, for an audience of parents and children. They were given by Professor John Krebs, a zoologist and recently retired head of the Food Standards Agency. This promised to be a good and apt educative venture, but we rated it lacking in scientific insight and objectivity. (We also scanned the numerous advertising interludes for untoward temptations for greedy children – of all ages). We have campaigned with the BBC to run a program resembling the regular God Slot that we might call the Gut Slot filling the gap between Farming Today and the Food Program (on Radio 4). This would be educational and diverse and exhibit free range beyond the confines of DEFRA, the FSA, or the Dept of Health: it would entertain cultural, traditional, and evolutionary significances.
9. As a further educational project we turn to the enactment in schools of the Nativity play, a pantomime that must be lost on many of the children and staff in many schools in the UK. However, the scene is ripe for updating and opportunities. The 3 Kings would be officials of the FSA, State Veterinary Service, and the Public Health Agency bearing their clipboards, a badger would be lurking in the shadows, the farmer would be off-site at his computer calculating Single Farm Payments and euros to the pound, the man-in-the-bowler-hat ready to AI the heifer – the Blessed Virgin Marigold – followed by the circumciser chap… and over it all the icon of Cap’n Birds Eye, whipper up of quick meals in miraculous circumstances.
As an alternative, the story of Daniel and his colleagues Shadrack, Ameshak, and Abednego at the court of King Nebuchadnezzar offer plenty of opportunities, with a prime role for the court eunuch. However, it is the first recorded epidemiological study of diet and health – the birth of enormous subsequent endeavours that every teacher and child should heed.