At my children’s school, a state primary in north London, the school dinners are so repellent that even the teachers bring in packed lunches.
They wouldn’t dream of eating the school dinners. “It’s just slop,” one told me. Slop, served on plastic trays. Small children are not even given the luxury of plates. No wonder so much of it ends up on the floor. Through which the older children must tread, when they come in for their turn; the dining “hall” is so tiny that they eat in shifts, bolting it down because the lunch break isn’t long enough. Children actually eat quite slowly; mastering cutlery is difficult. Sandwiches are easier, and faster all round.
The official offering is healthy; indeed, it ticks so many nutritional boxes that it ends up not being a meal at all, but a blended parcel of vitamins and protein. With, naturally, a veggie option. Have I tasted the dinners myself? No. Parents are not allowed to.
For headteachers keen to try the latest tack against obesity, banning packed lunches and insisting on school dinners, I have two words. Good luck. I tried to force my lot to eat them. Their response was hunger strike, for two terms. They ate nothing. I would collect them at 3.30 and they were ravenous, grumpy and tearful. Compared to that, a Nutella bagel, a banana and a packet of crisps is probably the better option.
Furthermore, it ill behoves commercial chefs such as Henry Dimbleby of Leon, or Jamie Oliver, to come winging into state schools and grandly dictate what children should be eating. Their instincts may be sound but they simply aren’t in the real world. There ain’t the budgets, guys.
It may not have dawned on Oliver, who sends his kids to a private London school, but I feel Dimbleby should understand. Cooking nice food in giant quantities is difficult, and costly. I had a Leon meal this week at King’s Cross, and for the money (about a tenner, about eight times more than a school would pay per child), it was less than spectacular; soggy potato waffly things, a tiny chicken curry and a hideous, bitter cauliflower offering called a Gobi.
For Mr Dimbleby, I have two more words. Get Real.