While Wales is always looking to countries such as those in Scandinavia for models in education, in one aspect we could learn from England.
   That is the matter of school meals and their nutritional value ; also, the standard of them.
   We need to look to England, but not replicate what they've done, because France as well should provide inspiration.
   The source of the problem dates back to the dark days of Thatcher and sweeping ideology of privatisation (which the Con Dems are still intent on in England today).
   When school meals provision was privatised in the 1980s to create competition, all it did was ensure that the cheapest provider won out and pupils suffered. Multi-nationals provided pre-prepared food, with a total lack of fresh, local ingredients.
   Labour's answer was the usual reactive politics, responding to the influence of tv celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, he in effect became the 'school meal tsar' under Blair.
   Though the underlying problems of ownership and control weren't addressed, what we can learn is the need to deal with it on a national basis.
   In England, the food available for school meals has radically changed, though it is now under threat as Gove attempts to free the flagship Academies from what he sees as 'restrictions'. Compulsory Home Economics, healthy food choices and the banning of vending machines could all disappear.
   Sadly, in Cymru we had no such national policy which pushed through dramatic alterations in eating habits ; the meals in our schools remain poor by comparison. Individual councils have tried to redress the balance, but we have failed to counter the 'junk food' epidemic and the serious obesity levels which follow.
   In a recent article in the 'Guardian' the menu at English schools was far more varied and nutritional and also catered for vegetarians in a way we do not in Wales. Science has proved conclusively that vegetarianism is beneficial in terms of health, both short and long term, especially in relation to cancer and heart disease.
   My daughter attends a Comp in RCT and recently asked what the vegetarian alternative was. She was told that there was none and they only wrote it on the menu and didn't actually cook it!
   At her school, burgers and pizzas are available every day of the week and healthier options soon run out. At my wife's Primary the food is served in paltry portions and the standard very poor. Some Primaries still don't have cooking facilities on site, so the food is merely brought in and re-heated.
   Compare this to France, where children from the age of three are given five courses, with three of these often being salad, fruit and cheese. From this age they are encouraged to try everything and acquire a taste for the likes of mussels and artichokes!
   We lag behind both England and France and the behaviour and ability to study of our children are impaired as a consequence. Any teacher will tell you about the dreaded afternoon 'hyper', a factor which could be minimised ,or even eradicated , with real investment in improving school meals.
   Local suppliers must be sourced at every opportunity ( a vital point in Plaid Cymru's local government manifesto) and there must be an ethical thrust to it, with free range or organic products used wherever possible.
   The provision of meals must be returned to our elected representatives at Council and Senedd levels, to ensure that kitchen staff are decently paid, trained thoroughly and investment made into a long term commitment.
   As well as this, I'd advocate the involvement of pupils and teachers in their own meals.
   In Comprehensives, Home Economics Departments should return to more practical work and less design and food provided, not brought in by the pupils. They should be linked to the kitchens themselves, with pupils given chances to devise menus and ,indeed, play a part in preparation of food for consumption by fellow pupils.
   In Primary schools, each form could be assigned a week where they contribute one thing to the school meals, even if it were as basic as a fresh fruit salad.
   Every school should have a plot of land where vegetables and herbs are grown to be used regularly in the school kitchen.
   Imagine the excitement of children following their own produce from seed to picking and on to preparation and eating. Imagine the pride they would take!
   With this sense of participation I believe more pupils would opt for school meals rather than packed lunches (which invariably include crisps and chocolate bars), a trip down the shops or the local chip van.
   Food needs to be exciting and reflect the global recipes available, but also seasonal.
   When I was in Grammar School there was no choice and  though the meals were probably more balanced than today's, a great deal was inedible. The meat, for example, wouldn't have been out of place in a cobbler's window!

   This poem relates to an earlier experience and my first, uncomfortable rebellion!

                                      A BOWL OF FROGSPAWN

Four going on five,
shorts and a bush of curly hair.
Even then, singing and footie
were my desires.

At the Infants, told to eat
whatever was before me.
Refused the bubbly tapioca,
like spawn scooped into jamjars.

Had to stand on my own
at the front,
had to explain
why I wouldn't eat it.

No words to describe
the way I looked
for black dots swimming
in its sticky gloop ;

the way I imagined frogs
hatching in my tummy,
jumping up my throat
and filling my mouth!

I stood speechless,
all eyes upon me
staring poppy-out like toads.
I thought I'd wee ;

I thought the yellow liquid
would make a pool below me
and all those froggy children
would hop towards me, burping loud.


05/09/2012 03:03

Hi Mike. I wholeheartedly agree, being an occasional sufferer of school meals myself! Another difference here in France is that schoolchildren go out of school to "restaurants scolaires" for their meals, staff eat with them at the tables and they use glass and china, not plastic. In my children's old primary the wonderful cook who sourced all her ingredients from local farms and fed the children roast dinners at least once a week with real meat, was made redundant and put out to tender. After many, many complaints from parents and food consistently left by children, we had a presentation evening for parents and governors ~ and the food we were sampling bore only a passing resemblance to that fed to the kids. Needless to say the caterers are still in possession of the kitchen ~ warming up food cooked at a local comprehensive and shipped in. I also wrote a poem about a memorable school meal ~ Chicken fricassee on toast". I still shudder remembering it! The food, not the poem...


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