Are we short changing kids over school meals
As children prepare to go back to school, Michael Wolsey wonders if it is really possible to provide them with healthy food considering the low price they pay
If Michael Gove has his way, the big issue for Britain's primary schools this coming term will be not what's on the curriculum but what's on the menu. The Education Secretary wants principals to ban packed lunches and insist that all pupils take school dinners. He also wants to see an improvement in the quality of meals.
Mr Gove's writ does not run in Northern Ireland but his influence does. So it's a safe bet our education authorities will also be taking a look at what goes on to the lunchtime plate.
And who would argue with that? We all want the best for our children. Trouble is, we're less enthusiastic when it comes to paying for it and we turn a blind eye to a price tag that wouldn't buy a snack in any commercial establishment.
A school lunch in Northern Ireland costs between £2.20 and £2.50 depending on where you live and which school your children attend.
So put £2.50 in your pocket and see what it will get you in a cafe or restaurant.
If you are lucky, you might get a sandwich. If the sandwich is poorly filled your lunch allowance might also stretch to a drink – a cheap fizzy drink, not the Real Thing.
For a school lunch, that £2.50, plus in some cases a very small subsidy, pays not just for the food but for its presentation, wages for the staff who cook it, the room it is served in and a profit for the catering company.
In a 2011 report from the Northern Ireland Audit Office, Comptroller and Auditor General, Kieran Donnelly, explained the subsidy. "Among other things, additional funding of £3.2m in 2009-10 was meant to ensure that the food content value of school meals is a minimum of 50 pence in nursery, primary and special schools and a minimum of 60 pence in post-primary schools,'' said Mr Donnelly. "Many school catering supervisors have experienced difficulties in meeting the requirements... within the budget available.''
I don't doubt him. If you do, try this. When you've spent £2 of that £2.50 lunch allowance, head to the supermarket with the remainder and see what food you can get for 50p. A packet of crisps, maybe, if you don't go for a dear brand.
Because they buy in bulk, and are experienced at this sort of shopping, the people who purchase for catering companies do much better than that. They achieve value-for-money miracles in the supply of minced meat, minced fish and cheap chicken, served up as burgers, mince pies, chicken curry, fish fingers and lasagne.
No child will starve on that diet. Neither will they learn the lessons of healthy eating.
In France, a school meal costs about £4.50 and the state pays half of that. Around £1.20 is spent on the ingredients. That's still not a fortune, but it's twice what we pay. It provides a meal which includes a starter, salad, main course, cheese plate and dessert. By law, schools must allow children at least 45 minutes to eat their lunch. No single meal is repeated within a two-month period of 32 school days.
In an article in Time magazine, Vivienne Walt, an American living in Paris, complained that parents are discouraged from entering French school buildings, let alone the classrooms.
"I cannot tell you what my child learns, paints or builds on any given school day,'' she wrote. "But I do know that on (Tuesday) he ate hake in Basque sauce, mashed pumpkin, cracked rice, Edam cheese and organic fruits.''
She knew because menus for the coming week are posted every Monday on a notice board outside every school in France. They are there because French parents care about what their children eat. Perhaps they should care a little more about what their children learn, but that's beside the point.
French parents care what their children eat. We care only when there is a health scare or some scandal such as the recent rumpus about horsemeat ending up in school meals.
From 1944 in Britain, and a few years later in Northern Ireland, school meals were free or heavily subsidised.
Margaret Thatcher ended this entitlement in the 1980s and ordered local authorities to put their catering out to competitive tender.
A survey in 1999 by the Medical Research Council found that children in the 1950s had healthier diets than their counterparts in the 1990s, with more nutrients and lower levels of fat and sugar.
A similar survey today would show no improvement.
Mr Gove has been presented with evidence that good nutrition is not only valuable in itself but can contribute to improved exam results at both primary and secondary level.
Research included one school in the London borough of Sutton where the number of pupils eating school meals increased from 20% to 80% and the number getting at least five GCSE passes went up from a miserable 4% to almost 100%.
So, if for educational reasons alone, it is time parents started looking at a school's menu along with the rest of its syllabus.