Friday lunch is heavenly

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
For a moment I thought it was April Fool's Day and that I had just read a broadsheet's spoof article. But no, apparently it is all true. Baked beans on toast, Britain's most popular convenience food, is about to get even more convenient in the form of an instant frozen, fused sandwich that goes in the toaster. No kidding. It is the function of speed over food.

Just how busy are some people? My form was thrilled at the news. I decided to conduct a quick poll of what they ate and drank in an average school day, and we all kept a mini food diary. After all, we are what we eat.

Worryingly, in my case, this means I'm a mass of cheap white chocolate and Percy Pig jelly sweets.

At least I drink water, lots of it. Some of my pupils do not drink any at all. Ever. George said he thought it was just something to wash in. He also has a can of fizzy drink at breakfast and one before bedtime. No wonder he always has a headache.

How do we make healthy eating interesting and stimulating for pupils? I recall learning how to cook at school. No matter how disastrous my efforts, my father stoically ate everything I made, even if at times it was in total silence.

I still have not quite recovered from the upset of watching my shepherd's pie sinking - too little mashed potato on top of too liquid a meat base. My father said not to worry, it all ended up upside down when you ate it anyway.

But I did learn to make meals. Pupils today seem to think that everything comes out of a packet or microwave. Without practical cooking skills, how can they produce a healthy balanced meal for themselves? We need to give them actual examples of good food.

Since their introduction, school meals seem to have achieved a bad reputation on a par with prison and airline food. This has not been helped by St Jamie of the School Canteen berating schools for feeding pupils "shit" not fit for a dog, and demanding the Government does something.

Well, doing something it is. It has pledged pound;220 million over three years to help schools train and hire cooks to elevate school meal standards. Yet some catering companies argue that this is only 30 per cent of the income needed for food, labour hours and training to achieve the changes required. It is nothing compared with the pound;900m we spend as a nation annually on ready meals.

There has been a negative effect of the Great Turkey Twizzler Expose - a 12.5 per cent drop in the number of children eating school meals over the past year. That is 400,000 pupils nipping off to Starbucks, Subway or the corner shop for lunch. Yet the British Medical Journal concluded in November that school dinners offered better nutritional value than most packed lunches, and found that pupils on school dinners had lower levels of blood cholesterol, blood sugar and insulin.

We need resources in the kitchens of our schools, not just tons of fresh food. On the Jamie's School Dinners website, a poll asks: "If the Government puts more money into school dinners, where should it go?"

Seventy-six per cent believe "to subsidise better, fresher ingredients".

Only 5 per cent "to dinner ladies' pay".

No wonder dinner ladies are contemplating strike action and catering companies' profits are plummeting. But there is no need to panic. Tony Blair's trusty nanny state has yet another wizard idea to save us all from ourselves. Letters informing parents of four and 10-year-olds who are about to be measured and weighed for obesity are landing on our nation's doormats as you read.

Will this shock parents into taking more responsibility for their children's size and health? I doubt it. It is yet another symptom of our national obsession with weight and body shape, one that will only become worse with such intense government focus.

How will such data collection help either parent or child? Yes, 15 per cent of children in the country are now obese, but a letter won't make this decrease. It is yet more government by inertia, doing something for the sake of it without addressing the core issue.

I love Fridays at school and not just because it heralds the weekend. On Fridays we get fish and chips. On a fabulous Friday this is followed by chocolate Rice Krispie cakes, at which point I think I've died and gone to heaven.

Our school meals are that rare thing: properly cooked, well-balanced meals.

We do not need any Jamie Oliver-style heroes to ride into our kitchen. Nor letters from nannying politicians. Look at the state of them. John Prescott? Hardly a vision of health.

Our form produces a year assembly based on the TV programme You are What You Eat. None of the pupils looks at all impressed by facts such as the human body being comprised of more than 70 per cent water, hence the need to drink the stuff.

They laugh at Matthew as Gillian McKeith, resplendent in blonde wig, waving organic vegetables. They delight at Francis farting loudly to illustrate just how bad too many takeaways can be for the digestive system.

Luckily, I drew the line at analysing stools.

Julie Greenhough teaches at a London boys' school

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