Tuesday 30 August 2011

School meals

I'm not sure if enough people care about this to even read this blog post; even Jamie Oliver has lost interest, but in time for the kids going back to school here's my take on the real tragedy of school meals.

The Independent has reported today that the price of school meals will go up by a quarter this year1. I remember being on free school meals at school and then I remember having to bring in money for them. I have a faint recollection of the lady who handed the free school meal cards out saying "your daddy's got a job now" when I went to get mine by mistake. This would have been a few years after the steelworks shut. And there lies the root of the problem. There was then and still remains a stigma attached to taking up free school meals.

My old school is now the school that my daughter attends and the local council have been taking part in a trial set up by by the Labour government in 2009 where all children were given free school meals for the entire year2. Even then there were some children whose parents would still send them with packed lunches citing allergies or fusiness as reasons. The trial has ended (Tories cut the funding) and although it's a bit unscientific of me I will pre-empt the outcome of the study: Children who eat a school meal will show greater levels of attentiveness than those who eat packed lunches. I recognise that measuring attentiveness or even achievement at primary school age is difficult and I couldn't even predict if the results would be statistically signifiant but I believe that a school meal is better than a packed lunch. When the new term starts we will pay for my daughters' school meals.

However, the price increase exacerbates a problem. It means that the price of a school meal will approach the price of a basic packed lunch. This should never be the case. A kitchen ordering food form a wholesaler should be able to provide a meal that is both healthier and cheaper than a parent shopping in a supermarket. The reasons they can't are complex; the old school leftie reason why they can't is that private companies now provide school meals need to make profits for shareholders. The equation is simple: More children bringing packed lunches makes it less likely that parents who are entitled to free school meals are to take them up. There is not only peer pressure on kids to do what their friends are doing but school gate pressure for parents on low incomes to follow the crowd of packed lunch providers.

The real news is not that school meals are going up by 25% but that there are many parents needlessly spending limited resources on buying a weeks worth of dairylea dunkables for their childs lunches.

1. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/school-meal-prices-rise-by-a-quarter-2345869.html

2. http://www.durham.gov.uk/pages/service.aspx?ServiceId=4

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