Is this what’s being served at your child’s school? BLECH.

Headteachers across the UK have recently been urged by a government-commissioned school food review to ban children from bringing in their own lunches. Parents are already beginning to bemoan this for several valid reasons – among them the current cost and quality of school dinners, and the power of the nanny state over parental choice. Others, however, see that this could be a good thing, given that packed lunches don’t always encourage communal eating in schools, some parents are not sending their child to school with a balanced meal, and schools are supposed to be reinforcing the precepts of healthy eating taught in class (which is in their best interests – after all, children do concentrate better in school if they eat properly). So as a teacher in a secondary school, what’s my view of it?

I have some very driven, athletic students who pride themselves upon eating well, choosing to go to the nearby supermarket at lunchtime for a salad and an apple. I also have some students who can be found glued to the vending machines at any opportunity (including between lessons, when they shouldn’t be there – not just at lunchtime) and who take themselves off to fast food outlets every lunchtime. My colleagues in the science department try very hard, I’m sure, when teaching nutrition, to educate the students about healthy food choices, and balanced school meals are provided (usually consisting of a protein, a carbohydrate, 1-2 vegetables, and something for afters, which is sometimes fruit and sometimes dessert).

However, is it really a school’s role to teach students about healthy eating, and to uphold this principle throughout the school day? This is where Britain and France diverge. Britain is the land where vending machines have been mostly banned in schools by now, and where students have the precepts of healthy eating drummed into them, not just in science lessons but also in personal and social education classes (PSE). The argument that schools should continue to do this by having students eat healthy lunches provided by the school therefore follows logically. In France, however, the choices and rights of the individual are highly prized (this is practically enshrined in their constitution). This seems to cover the students and their parents separately, therefore leaving no place for schools to tell students what they should or shouldn’t be eating, or to tell parents what they should or shouldn’t be feeding their children. It therefore makes logical sense in the light of this to allow students to eat what they want at lunchtime, whether it’s an apple or an apple pie. This is also a reason why you won’t find any PSE lessons in French schools, and why students in France are unlikely to be punished by their school for their behaviour outside of the premises, even if they happen to be wearing a school uniform at the time.

A school meal from Grenoble

The French view of it also assumes that parents are already teaching children to eat correctly, so for schools to do so would be redundant. This is perhaps not unfounded given that France hardly has a problem with obesity (go over a UK size 12 here and you’re practically considered plus-size). School dinners are also a matter of convenience, not health, and if children (or their parents) don’t want these, packed lunches are still practically unheard of, as children not taking school dinners tend to go home for lunch (hence the idea of school dinners being more to do with convenience). Plus, let’s be honest, there’s perhaps less of an issue in France with children refusing to eat something that resembles vulcanized lizard rocks from the moon (thanks, Dylan Moran!). Take this sample menu, for instance, from the secondary school nearest to where I live (NB not the one I work at):

STARTER: Soup, salami, or a white cabbage salad; MAIN: Roast veal with tomato and basil or tuna quiche, served with parsley potatoes or leek fondue; DAIRY: yoghurt or cheese; DESSERT: homemade fruit crumble or fresh fruit.

All ingredients are seasonal and they even recommend which options students should choose if they’re trying to watch their weight. Not a Turkey Twizzler or even a chip in sight. The cost? €220 a term, or €3,46 a meal (assuming they’ll be in school for 64 days the term commencing September 2013). That’s £2.99 at today’s exchange rate. There’s even a cheaper tariff available if you don’t want them to have all the meals each week. Costs also go down if you go to a cheaper area of France (living costs in the south of France, where the above picture came from, are far likelier to be lower than here, just outside of Paris). AND THIS IS A STATE SCHOOL WE’RE TALKING ABOUT. What’s the French for “blimey!”?

It’s therefore easy to see why this may be more of a problem in the UK – particularly if it’s really true that British parents are not sending their kids to school with a healthy lunch (not necessarily saying this has to rival the above, people). For some people this raises an ethical question: if significant numbers of parents are not doing this, then is it the school’s moral duty to do so?

Among all of those saying “hands off my children, nanny state!” there are people like me who feel that since schools and teachers are often considered in loco parentis, we are obliged to fulfil these duties where the parents fail. This comes from someone like me who works in a school which at times actively facilitates poor eating: even though (as mentioned above) the establishment I work at does provide balanced meals for students at lunchtime, it resembles airline food more than anything else and is probably of limited nutritional value even if they aren’t serving the kids Mars Bars for dessert. Takeup is consequently very low as the meals are widely thought by the students to be disgusting, and word of mouth is a powerful thing. It’s also worth noting that I work in a private school that’s crammed to the rafters with the children of diplomats, oil magnates, film-makers, and so on. Money is not an issue for the vast majority, so having to pay a little bit more for their children to eat outside the premises typically doesn’t bother the parents. On top of this, students are permitted unfettered access to vending machines within the school building, virtually regardless of age or time of day. This would be fine if the machines contained cereal bars, dried fruit, and water. But they don’t, which means kids can often be seen strolling the corridors at 9.00 in the morning cradling a can of full-fat Coke or chomping on a Twix for breakfast (yes, really, often our students’ excuse for this is that they didn’t eat breakfast this morning). It’s perhaps easy to see, then, why I feel that some schools overstep the mark.

Perhaps that’s where the difficulty lies. SOME schools overstep the mark. SOME parents don’t send their children to school with a healthy lunch. NOT ALL of them do. So how can you legislate against those who aren’t up to scratch without victimizing those who are? Parents in Britain particularly resent their children’s meals being policed in this way. So the best approach is probably a multi-pronged attack, as suggested elsewhere in the School Food Plan report. Firstly, tackle the cost: state schools’ meals at the very least should be heavily subsidised to ensure that they are healthy and affordable in the hope of increasing uptake. Perhaps a day where parents and children can come and sample the food for free will also persuade them to sign up for the meals long-term. As more children choose school meals, other children may not want to feel left out and to have the chance to eat similar food, meaning that peer pressure can play a positive role. The report strongly recommends continuing the free school meals scheme for disadvantaged families too.

Secondly, schools should be continuing to set a good example, even if this is not through making school dinners compulsory for all pupils. Nutrition is already covered in science lessons and should be covered in PSE as well. Only healthy foods – such as carefully chosen brands of smoothies, cereal bars, and dried fruit – should be sold in school vending machines. Equally, positive food-based activities can be encouraged through events such as after-school cookery classes, international food days, and cooking in school with fruits and vegetables the students have grown themselves (OK, so this is more easily facilitated in the countryside, but plenty of vegetables can be grown indoors, including tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and mushrooms. And don’t forget the fresh herbs!). If all students have a chance to partake in activities like these then it could help the principles of healthy eating to become something applicable to their own lives. There’s also little to stop schools from involving parents in these activities, in the hope that some may lead by example.

Finally, schools will hopefully take this opportunity to implement rules that fit their establishment. Our school lets students over the age of 13 out at lunchtime due to a lack of on-site outdoor space for them to eat, socialize and get fresh air – but some schools may consider that they can do away with letting students out to feast on the delights of fast food if they improve their school meals. Equally, some schools may feel that they can monitor parents and students more closely, by watching what children eat at lunchtime in person (thanks to school supervisors) and via technology (students can already ‘touch in’ to the school canteen or ‘pay’ for their purchases using a swipe card or even a fingerprint – so the notion that their ‘purchases’ could also be recorded and relayed to parents as a written or e-report is perhaps not outside the realms of possibility). However, this would be up to individual schools to decide, and is perhaps not something that can be legislated by government as a blanket policy for all schools, whose students come from very different backgrounds and have different needs.

In short, an overall ban on packed lunches is probably not the way forward. Improvement of school meals is imperative in terms of both cost and quality, and if schools focus on this, as well as their approach to food in general and the impression that this gives to students, they may well find that they get the result that they want without the outright ban. As for me, this has even made me look more seriously at my own lunches (hey, you didn’t think that teachers always managed to make it into school with a healthier lunch than the kids, did you? More often than not I end up with instant soup or noodles…) – you’ll find me planning some seriously luxurious (and don’t forget healthy!) lunches for September.