Life

Nuala McCann: Slashing school dinners feels like a backward slide

Theresa May's plans to save £650 million by scrapping free school lunches for infants and offer them breakfast instead seems like a giant backwards step. No-one can dispute the benefits of a decent breakfast. But to substitute a free breakfast for a free school lunch sounds like a cynical cost-cutting exercise

School lunch has long been seen as the best chance to give a child protein and vegetables as well as a heartening social experience

I COME from a family where food was a religion. We believed in the holy trinity of potato, cabbage, bacon plus the bacon gravy – my mother has a legendary heavy hand with the butter.

In winter, the walk home from school was sweeter for the thought of the stew and meatballs singing a siren song from the stove. In summer, the pink rhubarb plucked fresh from our garden and stewed to perfection was so tasty that I once ate five bowlfuls.

No-one had warned me of the consequences. Emerging from the bathroom a week later, I vowed never to eat rhubarb in such quantities again – but I love it nevertheless.

As a small child, my brother saw the world through his stomach.

“That is the colour of a bowl of custard,” he'd say pointing at a big yellow sun.

Or “that is the colour of a jam tart” he'd say, poking a tomato.

The Roman army and the McCann family marched on their stomachs.

Even day trips to the beaches of Donegal ended up in a local supermarket for the best sliced pan you could buy in the free state. We'd cry for cheese n onion crisps because they honestly tasted better in Donegal and you got the chocolate with the honeycomb bits in it that you never got at home and, of course, the Emerald toffees and the liquorice sweets.

Food is an obsession. It still is. My days are bookended with the question of what's for dinner. It's not that we are fine diners, it's just that I can't shake the DNA programming.

Rosy memories of school days feature the distinct wobble of a giant cube of pink blancmange with a large swirl of fake cream on top. I'd take two.

Yes, we had semolina and rosehip syrup – “frog's spawn and monkey's blood”, we'd sigh.

There was also a memorable day in primary school when the stone from a prune stuck in my throat – I never said anything as I choked very politely – convent education and all that – but it hurt like hell for a week.

We had fine Christmas dinners in school down the years – even if the head nun used to do plate patrol and lecture us on the importance of eating our sprouts. Nevertheless if, like Oliver, you wanted more of anything – chips, jelly or ice cream – there were always kind dinner ladies to oblige. Thanks again, Aunty Kitty.

Needless to say, Theresa May's plans to save £650 million by scrapping free school lunches for infants and offer them breakfast instead seems like a giant backwards step. In a world where so many children do not get their five-a-day, the proposal to scrap a decent meal in the middle of the day sounds crazy and ill thought out.

School meals are what children look forward to – if everyone is eating their meat and their veg, then they are settled for classes. Children also understand lessons on healthy food choices if they have been treated to a few.

A hot school meal is welcome in winter and the chance to sit with friends and relax and eat should never be missed. The opportunity to try “scary” food is also important – you might find you actually quite like fish when it's not wearing a batter coat and you might discover a penchant for little broccoli trees.

Much has been written about the stigma of children who get free school meals, but I don't remember noticing who paid and who didn't when the dinner tickets were doled out at school. When the latest proposals were outlined, a tearful Jamie Oliver who worked hard to revolutionise school dinners, called it “short sighted” and “awful”, citing the long term costs of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.

No-one can dispute the benefits of a decent breakfast. But to substitute a free breakfast for a free school lunch sounds like a cynical cost-cutting exercise.

Bee Wilson, writing in Saturday's Guardian, paid tribute to Ralph Crowley, a medical officer in Bradford who revolutionised school food in the UK. She said that in 1908, 3,000 of Bradford's poorest schoolchildren sat down to a two-course school meal every weekday at tables spread with fresh cloths and featuring a vase of flowers in the centre.

He saw that lunch as the best chance to give a child protein and vegetables as well as a heartening social experience.

How far have we travelled since then? It feels like a true backwards slide.

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