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Free dinners - food for thought

ince and tatties, and wodges of cake with jam and coconut and custard - do you remember school dinners? No choices but sometimes, on a good day, there were seconds.

It wouldn't have occurred to us to complain. And I think it cost five bob a week. Looking back, it must have been a nightmare for my mother - not just finding the pound a week, but finding it in change she could divide by four.

We have a fantastic dinner lady in our school - lunch is always good, and the kitchen gleaming.

The kids thole the queues, and the staff sneakily cut in; somehow, in half an hour, everyone is fed. I always mean to go and do some work, but the chat is too good and we sit on while the kids lounge about the dining hall - or wander away, the boys to run off excess energy, the girls holding hands and talking, talking, talking.

I always find the sight of pupils eating endearing, just as I liked watching my own boys. Somehow, they are at their most vulnerable. Some kids have trayfuls and enough money to go back for more. Others seem to live on very little - a plate of chips, maybe, but no one gives any indication of minding, or even noticing. Pupils are amazingly pragmatic.

We have a good system. We have wee plastic cards we load up with lolly at special machines. Those with free dinners have the cash automatically credited. Gone are the days when the wee souls clutched their shameful pink tickets. In fact, I think even now, many of those entitled to free meals don't take them up. A pity, but maybe parents think they are protecting their youngsters by not claiming.

So why do I find them endearing, messy pups eating with open mouths, chips spilling out? Maybe it's a bit to do with a DH Lawrence poem about birds dying of cold, where he points out they never feel sorry for themselves.

Maybe just because I see them as individuals.

Somehow, hunger is a great equaliser: everyone is starving and everyone is glad of lunch. Walk through the dinner hall and kids grin across at you and, although our pupils with additional support needs often cluster together, it's wonderful to see the odd one sitting with old primary pals.

It doesn't matter that they can't read - they are hungry just the same.

Jamie Oliver did something good when he stepped into the dining hall. In some ways, he is so far removed from the lives many of our kids lead, that his belief that he could change things was almost arrogant. But he dared, and our choices have changed to include healthy options. No chocolate either, which must be an oversight.

Our pupils spend about pound;2 each and every day on their lunch. Oxfam offered 100 dinners for six quid last Christmas. Let us be glad we have enough food, and let us never forget those who don't.

Penny Ward is a secondary teacher

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