It is the Easter holidays and we are in sole charge of our baby granddaughter for a couple of hours. Her parents are recovering from postnatal trauma in a darkened diner that serves handcrafted burgers. I have only just succeeded in singing her to sleep when Mrs Eddison – flicking through parenting magazines – is shocked to learn that one in five children in the last year of primary school is obese. Her tone suggests that I’m somehow to blame for this statistic.
Unable to bear the thought of having to sing another verse of Hush, Little Baby, I conduct my defence in whispers. Don’t you think we haven’t fought to free children from junk food’s totalitarian grip? Strived to stand up against the insidious power of sugar-reinforced snacks? Launched numerous initiatives aimed at discouraging nutritionally dubious packed lunches in favour of a more balanced school meal?
Having long since banned sweets and biscuits (outside of the staffroom), school lunch is the only practical weapon we have left to promote healthy eating. But persuading children to eat vegetables that are essentially green and meat that hasn’t been processed is no easy task. Sliced pork loin with steamed broccoli will always lose out to cheeseburger and fries, even if we present it in a colourful box, call it a “Merry Meal” and include a free plastic toy.
“Spice-up-your-life Thursday” was one attempt to introduce menus with more pizzazz. Why not indulge your taste buds with our devilishly tasty Tex-Mex chilli con carne (made from Red Tractor-accredited beef), served with wholegrain rice and iron-rich green beans? Or if you prefer a vegetarian option, treat yourself to a deliciously fiery bean wrap instead.
Unfortunately, the response wasn’t quite as spicy as the menu, although if my presentation idea had been met with more enthusiasm, things might have worked out differently. The sight of the school cook wearing traditional, vibrant Mexican dress and dancing to the sound of her staff strumming guitars could only have improved the overall culinary experience.
When imaginative menus coupled with clever marketing ploys failed to improve the take-up of school lunches, we decided to ask some hard questions about what motivates children (and adults) to defy serious health risk to pursue an unwholesome diet. Could it be something as simple as the desire to gamble? And if so, how could we use this impulse to encourage children to eat a school lunch?
During the week prior to the Easter break, our “Great School Lunch Lottery” took place. The chance of finding a prize sticker on the bottom of a dinner plate was met with much enthusiasm.
And despite a few minor disasters (prior to the children being warned that anybody else caught looking at the bottom of their plate before clearing it would be disqualified), the whole thing was an overwhelming success. Or it would have been, but for some disquiet over the prizes.
“They won what?” cries Mrs Eddison, in a voice loud enough to wake a new granddaughter from a shallow sleep. “Chocolate Easter eggs?”
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield