Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Packed lunch

When the little Rigbys started school we paid for school dinners, because it seemed like a good idea. But, for several reasons, it didn't go too well and junior Rigbys ended up joining the packed lunch brigade.

Schools in Rigby Town don't have kitchens. Food is cooked elsewhere, 'centrally', then packed onto heated trolleys and delivered in a van. The young Rigbys and chums were given culinary delights such as a portion of cheese, baked beans and chips, followed by a slice of cake and custard. Sometimes there was pizza, plain sort of pizza with a smearing of tomato sauce and sprinkling of cheese - with chips of course. Sometimes there was pasta, with an indescribably bland sauce. Another time there were baked potatoes, filled with beans or bolognese, and chips. There was never a choice because, of course, only the right number of meals were ever delivered to the school, anything more would be wasteful - and because of this hungry children soon learned that being either at the front or tail end of the queue was always a bad idea because 'spoonfulls' or 'scoops' of food tended to contain less to eat than for those served out in the middle of the queue.

The other thing the little Rigbys disliked was the way they were expected to eat their food. You see, it's served on trays that are meant to double up as plates. They are hard plastic things with compartments for each 'bit' of the meal, which meant that beans spilled over into custard if the serving was either careless or hurried. And believe me, there's nothing a little Rigby likes less than custard flavoured with baked beans or tomatoes.

We Rigbys know from friends that children attending school in an adjoining county are given a mass produced 'packed lunch', comprising a sandwich, a yoghurt and a 'piece of fruit'. The sandwiches are always two slices of white 'plastic' bread with the thinnest of indescribably tasteless fillings that won't deteriorate if not kept chilled. The best flavoured yoghurts, naturally, go to those at the front of the queue, with the tailenders ending up with plain. The fruit is almost always an apple, because children won't eat green or mottled bananas and don't understand pears.

The decision to close school kitchens was made at county level, it was meant to save money because the 'old' kitchens needed upgrading to comply with the latest standards. Centralised cooking was also meant to save money, because mass purchase of ingredients is meant to be cheaper, and one large kitchen is supposed to need fewer staff than required to man many small kitchens. The authority that decided to do away with hot dinners altogether did so, apparently, on H&S grounds - because of the potential consequences of an equipment failure in a delivery van which could have led to food poisoning. So, all in all the bean counters and elves were probably happy, and the kids missed out.

The kids missed out because parents are led to believe that their children are provided with a 'proper meal' at lunch time, something similar to their meals at home. Parents imagine that their children will at the very least be allowed to choose between one or two menu options, options which cater for not only the personal likes and dislikes but also all the various 'allergies' suffered by increasing numbers of youngsters. But in many cases this simply isn't true, it doesn't matter how many 'menu plans' are sent home, because the powers that be can simply change their minds. Many children, when confronted with a school meal, are simply expected to eat what they're given, or go without. It doesn't matter a jot what dear Mr Oliver has to say about it, the penny - and baked bean - counters know what they're doing and in the end it's they who dictate policy.

Imagine, if you will, going to have your lunch and being told what you must eat. Imagine being told you can eat 'that' or go hungry - even if you (or your parents) have paid for your meal in advance.

Then imagine a regime that allows adult 'dining room assistants' who maybe only work for one or two hours a day to enforce these same rules on large groups of children, some as young as five.

We Rigbys dumped school meals quite early, and turned to packed lunches. Ours is a fairly unusual way of putting them together - to offer the children a variety of 'things' each evening with which to fill their lunch boxes, including sandwiches or rolls. Nothing, of course, is allowed to contain even the chance of a hint of essence of nut, because somebody somewhere in the school has an allergy - so no peanut butter, no sesame thins, no cashews, no peanuts and not even multi-seeded bread, just in case an unknown child suffers anaphylactic shock.

Our little scheme ensures that the little Rigbys never, ever, open up their lunch boxes to find something they don't want - it's meant to encourage them to eat a reasonable amount to keep them filled up until they get home, instead of sitting there nattering. You see, children's tastes change almost from hour to hour and like a petulant moggie they'll actually go without rather than eat something they don't want or like - or that their friends say isn't nice. They don't care in the least how much something's cost, they don't care if it's 'healthy', all they care about is whether it tastes nice - at the time.

Would we Rigbys pass the lunch box inspectors test? Probably not, but what we can do is balance a snacky fill-em-up type of lunch with a decent evening meal - and that's something the school dinnerists seem to forget.

Mrs Rigby would like to ask two simple questions of those who think it's reasonable to inspect children's lunch boxes, and who will remove anything that doesn't pass the test from the child's lunch box - meaning they could go hungry.
1) Is this really the way to treat children?

2) Would you like Mrs Rigby, or indeed anybody else, to inspect any one of your daily meals before you are allowed to eat it?
If the answer to either of those questions is negative then they should keep their noses out of what parents provide their children for the one meal a day on the 190 days that they attend school*. And, maybe, they should investigate the institutional meals provided in places like this - and see if they'd get away with their dictatorial policies there.

* Most people these days eat 3 meals a day, which is 1095 meals in a non-leap year.

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