I have a draft post half written about Twitter, but a tweet this morning made most of what I want to say irrelevant, with a simple, elegant German phrase.
This morning’s pig, aptly enough, was the Department of Education’s response to a report on how to improve food in schools, and, more specifically, the recommendation that packed lunches be banned.
I do a good line in pig-chasing, joining a Twitter hue and cry till an issue is chased from timelines, or, more usually, processed into a consensus of soundbites and blogposts. My Twitter is a bit of a lefty-leaning, feminist-oriented sausage machine in that respect. So it was that by school run there was a loud THIS IS A BAD IDEA running through my mentions and head alike.
Firstly, most selfishly, cost. With three children, I would be paying (at current prices) £120 per month. We bake our own bread, and all of us at present have a lunch of a sandwich, fruit, and a varying addition of a few bits and pieces of raisins, snacks, breadsticks etc. It costs a fraction of £120.
Secondly, quality. The dinners at our school are absolutely fine, but they’re no better nutritionally than the packed lunches my children eat.
Thirdly, family meals. I cook a hot meal each evening, although we can rarely eat together except at the weekends.
Fourthly, a deep, deep suspicion and mistrust of motives. If I were paying the money directly to a team in the school who planned, shopped and cooked the meals, I could perhaps live with it. But of course they don’t and won’t. The money will end up in huge fat contracts to providers who will have little incentive to deliver quality or value. There are simply too many financial links between this government and those who win lucrative work through it. Given points 1,2 and 3 above, why would I sacrifice and compromise on all of these things which matter so much to me (and so many of those I spoke to this morning) in order to make individuals or companies richer? I could try to express this more subtly or with greater flair, but actually I’m too angry to do that.
Finally, it is yet another nail in the coffin of state public services. We pay tax for free education. Compulsory school meals effectively mean a charge to attend school. We could find the money at a sacrifice, but particularly with the changes to free school meals’ entitlement under Universal Credit, some families will be facing bills of hundreds of pounds which they just don’t have. Meanwhile schools will be hard pushed not to exploit the opportunity to raise revenue.
If the aim is really to support children for whom lack of decent nutrition is a barrier to learning, support breakfast clubs. Increase entitlement to free school meals. Stop forcing so many families into destitution by taking the safety net of social security away from them, and pay some heed to the fact that having a parent around makes shopping for and cooking a decent meal more feasible. Don’t just tinker around with bloody lunch boxes.
*update* Having been hot, hormonal and stressed when I typed this, it now appears that the authors of report in fact recommend free school meals for all, rather than the banning of packed lunches. A much better idea, although questions of cost, standards and logistics remain, not to mention whether this is the best use of a vast chunk of public money . I therefore apologise for the rant, but will leave it to stand on the chance that this ever is suggested for real.