Empty calories equals full canteens

25th September 1998 at 01:00
The note from the young home economics teacher read ``Dear Mr Sweeney, I have just stood in a queue for lunch behind a second year boy whose free meal consisted of chips and tomato sauce, three packets of crisps, two marshmallows and a can of Coke''. This member of staff, who spends her professional life trying to encourage children to eat properly was offended by this publicly-funded contradiction to the dietary wisdom which she professed.

For me this little cameo of sponsored malnutrition evoked memories of the school dinners of yesteryear. We called them dinners because, in those days, dinner was the meal taken in the middle of the day, except in posher areas, where they had school lunches.

There were always oceans of mince punctuated by archipelagos of shining red carrots, or thick Irish stew with roughly hewn slabs of turnip, followed by semi-submersible wedges of dumpling suspended in bright yellow custard.

It was a carnivore's cornucopia, a recipe for vertigo to the vegetarian, but it was food, real food. Alas, the school meal which beefed up the baby-boomers is no more and has been replaced by a dazzling array of empty calories in brightly-coloured packaging, which collectively masquerades under the euphemistic title of cash cafeteria. Chips abound, variously decorated with tomato sauce and improbably coloured cheese.

The main criterion for the range of fare provided is consumer choice, the vicissitudes of adolescent taste-buds. I watch helplessly each day as cohorts of children pass by the traditional main course, and head for the nutritionally sterile infusion of fat and sugar provided alongside.

In Holy Rood we have managed to resist the persistent clamour for Pot Noodles, Mars bars, and sweets, but children who want these vote in ever increasing numbers with their feet and head for the local shop, where they often find that the prices for sandwiches, sausage rolls and pizza are competitive with the school dining room.

We like to keep as many as possible of our charges on the campus at lunch-time, to enable them to participate in extra-curricular activities, but market forces are operating against us. Pupils tell us quite readily that in terms of price, quality and variety, they can do better elsewhere.

However, it is the free meal in particular which needs a new recipe. It is almost as though there is some arcane taboo which has attached itself to free meals, and nobody dares to set standards for fear of being politically incorrect or unegalitarian.

For some this may be the main meal of their day, and its contents should be specified to ensure that it meets minimal standards of nutrition. Whether children are paying or not, the fare available within the school should have a modicum of consistency with the curriculum taught in the classroom.

West Lothian has piloted a "three-tray system'' in primary schools which gives children a good choice within clearly defined categories, and no doubt other authorities and individual schools have tried similar approaches.

A school, like an army, marches on its stomach and attainment, attention and attendance will all depend on the gastronomic pabulum provided to the growing child. There is also increasing evidence that erratic and hyperactive behaviour has a close correlation to diet. Most pupils in Holy Rood catch the school bus at around 8.15am and do not arrive back home until 4.15pm. While the traditional two-course meal may no longer appeal to young people, there is a serious onus on the school to ensure that a healthy lunch is provided.

In-house catering services need to be told to balance their fixation with the bottom line with commitment to basic nutritional standards. If they cannot do this, then individual schools or groups of schools will be ready and willing to challenge their long-standing monopoly.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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