Dinners deserve some respect

7th October 2005 at 01:00
I have eaten school dinners, man and boy, for more than 40 years. Not for the first time, I feel the need to respond to the constant criticisms.

While recognising the valid concerns of schools and their communities, especially in the light of the E.coli outbreak in south Wales, it is vital that we retain our sense of the value school dinners bring to so many children.

Back in the 1960s I can remember eating some awful food, as well as enjoying plentiful plates of fresh vegetables and sweet puddings. An abiding memory is chewing cawl meat until I had to hide it in my pocket and throw it in the river after escaping for playtime. I was also forced to eat good fish by the head. And can you remember eating "pudding pipes" and semolina? Not my favourites.

However, as a teacher and head, many of my fondest memories are of the generosity of school cooks. As I had been brought up to clear my plate, some of them saw this as a challenge - resulting in me eating gigantic plates of excellent food. My thanks to them all.

I know that I am not the only person who is grateful. My mother was a school cook and a former pupil provided a garland of flowers for her funeral, as a token of thanks for her always saying yes to "Can I have some more?"

Jamie Oliver has certainly highlighted the need to ensure that school dinners are good for children. Wales was fortunate that it did not follow the excesses of the market economy and retained credible service providers.

We have generally fed children far less junk food than our English counterparts during the past 20 years and most schools now offer healthy menus. Schools have also been instrumental in the past few years in selling fruit at break-time instead of crisps, even though crisps were a highly profitable sideline and provided extra resources.

What is never highlighted is the poor quality of some children's packed lunches. So often I have seen boxes filled with crisps, sweets and processed cheese or meats. The fact that most are kept in containers that encourage the growth of bacteria seems to pass unnoticed. How many children suffer from upset stomachs due to the food that they bring in?

It seems school dinners will remain high on our agendas. Let us make sure the debate incorporates all foods that children eat, and that we all take responsibility for that balanced diet.

Gwilym Jones is head of Ysgol Y Wern in Ystalyfera, Neath Port Talbot

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