National School Meals Week: My daughter Martha Payne showed that if you feed children well at school, they perform better in class

Martha Payne's NeverSeconds blog proved the school canteen should be a place to set the standard for healthy eating.
  • @NeverSeconds

Notes to school usually contain details of dentist appointments and eye tests.

Writing a note to inform Martha’s class teacher that her blog had gone viral overnight, was the unexpected consequence of supporting her desire to write every day about her school dinner. It seems she couldn’t have picked a more emotive topic.

Everyone has a memory of their school dinners, and her posts were giving people a chance to compare their memories to her photographs, and like me, many were surprised.

Martha rated her dinners but more than that she told us how they made her feel. Macaroni cheese and jelly cheered her up after she broke her wrist and she gave it ten out of ten on her food-o-meter. Her daily dose of school dinners grew an international following and children from around the world sent in photos and global comparisons could be made.

Hungry children around the world weren’t forgotten, and support for Mary’s Meals was Martha’s idea to remember those with less.  In a world of growing diet related health issues children were photographing, writing and engaging in food, health and nutrition.

A joke headline in a newspaper led to Argyll and Bute Council banning Martha taking photos. Censoring of a nine year-old girl was condemned across the world and the ban lasted 26 hours.

Donations then flooded in to Martha’s JustGiving page and the total has passed through £120,000 for Mary’s Meals.  What started as a writing exercise about her school dinners was now able to build a kitchen at Lirangwe School in Malawi and feed a school dinner to 12,000 hungry children every school day for a year.

When we visited Malawi, the teachers told us how important a school dinner was. Kids came to school for something to eat and got the energy they needed to study. Exam results went up, and vitally, the number names of the list of deceased pupils decreased. It really brings home the message of how important the project is when the headteacher needs to keep a record of all deaths of children in the school.

It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, teachers will tell you the same story. Feed children well at school and they perform better in class.

School dinners in the UK need to meet this target, but in a way that encourages the right habits. Every time a child sits in school with a pizza, burger, hot dog or other variant of junk food, we are teaching them it’s the right food to eat. 

It doesn’t matter if the pizza is low sodium with a vegetable packed sauce and low quantities of strong cheese, because that’s not what they will find as an adult on the supermarket shelves.

The memories of school dinners influence people for the rest of their lives. School dinners should not be about refuelling but about educating children. The dining hall should be treated as another classroom with the job of producing a great lesson in healthy eating every day.

This week is National School Meals Week, organised by the Local Authority Catering Association (LACA), the association which represents the school food industry.

We’re all encouraged to take part on twitter using #LoveSchoolFood but what if you don’t ‘Love School Food’? What if your school has lost its kitchen or you’re at an academy where standards have disappeared?

A presumptive hashtag is a barrier to a proper debate. We do need to celebrate fantastic school dinners, but we shouldn’t forget those less fortunate. During National School Meal Week I’d like to see not just the providers, but the customers, the children, encouraged to take photographs of their dinners and blog about them. Let's use this week to see what our children are really eating.

David Payne is the smallholding father of nine year old Martha Payne whose NeverSeconds blog about her school dinners has had over 8.5 million hits and raised more than £120,000 for charity.

Twitter: @NeverSeconds

NeverSeconds - The Incredible Story of Marth Payne released 15 November by Cargo Publishing