Something to chew over;Friday's child;Parting shots

26th June 1998 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark looks in the lunchbox

Not a Victoria Plum pink lunchbox!'' he squirmed with disgust. "`I want one with just plain." "Just plain what?" "Just plain lunchbox.'' So, farewell then, the Winnie the Pooh lunchbox, veteran of hundreds of identical lunches.

By the age of 11, the lunchbox, once symbol of allegiance to Pingu or Postman Pat or Thomas the Tank Engine, is failing to cut it as a marker of cool. By the age of 16 - "anything, sandwiches in a Tesco bag, I don't care'' - lunch itself is rather low in the cool stakes.

Better to have an isotonic drink in a specially approved drinking flask (boys) or an apple followed by a furtive chocolate bar (girls). Plastic bottles which are two for pound;1 at Woolworths and decorated with World Cup motifs might be ok for junior boys but the girls turn their noses up. They have snazzy little backpacks or even cuddly koalas clutching round their backs.

The contents of lunchboxes are even more personal. Some people never get tired of a peanut butter on brown sandwich, Cadbury's Snack, two satsumas and cheese and onion crisps; others would rather eat the packaging.

I once sat on a Lancashire hillside eating packed lunches with a Year 2 class, some of whose meals had been provided by the local authority. They had cheese rolls, plain crisps, a jam tart and an apple. NO lunchbox.

As the lunch was handed round - lunchboxes from a plastic crate, free lunches in clear plastic bags from a cardboard box - and the Free Lunches edged forward to get theirs, their plain but nourishing lunch appeared a visible sign of marginality among all the gaudy crisps and chocolate biscuits. It almost came with an approving sticker reading "and very good for them too, I'll be bound".

And there is the contrary story, of very young children turning up for school trips with a six-pack of crisps and nothing else. No sandwiches, not even a drink.

It feels as if the age-old link between eating and nourishment is breaking down. Your lunchbox and what you put in it relates to lifestyle: Coke is either fun or tooth-rotting poison; chocolate is either a little bit of love in your lunch or spots and caries; a ham sandwich might be sustaining or forbidden food, or processed rubbish.

Food is, as anthropologists have long pointed out, the focus for social values. Is chewing gum food? Is a no-calorie fizzy drink food? Is a new Olestra (synthetic fat)-laden yogurt, guaranteed to pass through your body too quickly for any fat be digested, food? Conversely, is a bare hunk of bread, such as labourers subsisted on for centuries, food or starvation rations?

So the answer to eight-year old Jake must be: "There's no such thing as a plain lunchbox - and no such thing as a plain lunch."

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