Food Education Trust

Wise words from a wise man

May 2013

At last the sun has appeared and most of us seem happier for it. I was becoming rather depressed as I walked through my vegetable garden seeing no sign of greenery. The sun has managed to coax some broad bean and pea shoots out and I imagine with a light sprinkling of rain there will be no holding them back.

Diet wise, I am now at that stage where I need to move on from winter food and I am searching cookbooks for lighter recipes. I have fallen in love with Lebanese food being delighted with the freshness of the ingredients they use and the subtle combinations. It is certainly not a diet that would grip me all year round but that is one of the great things about living in Britain, being able to dip in and out of other countries cuisines sampling the best of all.

A subject occupying my thoughts a lot at the moment is about the quality of food that we are prepared to give our children to eat. From the seemingly harmless ‘children’s menus’ in restaurants to the way we are encouraged by advertising and food manufacturers to feed our children different food from adults a difficult relationship with food is born, which continues into adulthood, in varying forms.

I am particularly occupied by these thoughts since I visited a school in the South of England that had requested funding from the Food Education Trust to purchase new cooking equipment for their food technology department. The first point to make is whoever thought up ‘food technology ‘ as a subject name for cookery classes should be taken outside and force fed turkey twizzlers. It is never going to encourage us to have an easy relationship with food when studying it in detail becomes ‘technology’. The school in question had recently become an academy. I, in my naiveté thought that schools became academies because of their excellence. I now understand that ‘failing’ schools have pressure placed on them to step outside local authority control with the promise of a little extra one off funding and then they are left to their own devices as ‘academies’. What surprised me firstly about this school was that I was being asked to fund the purchase of equipment for a GCSE subject that the school had no money itself to provide. The department did have equipment but it was very old. I would have had trouble making a cake rise in some of the cake tins I saw. It was a pitiful sight. Incidentally, I would add that the teacher showing me round was inspirational and totally committed to the pupils and the school. I felt assured that he was teaching the children well in terms of how to eat properly and to cook.

The shocking part of the visit, and the part that did almost bring me to tears, was when we visited the canteen and I saw the quality of the food the children were being given to eat. At 11.30 the children were being offered hot dogs, pizza and burgers as a midmorning snack. I was told that they would have lunch at 1pm. The school had a breakfast club so why the children were being fed this sort of food midmorning was beyond my understanding. The quality of the offering was another matter altogether and looked like the cheapest kind. As well as serving the children this food the canteen staff were busy preparing the lunchtime fare. I was shown a tray of meatballs that the children were going to have. They certainly were not a ‘ball’ shape. They had somehow been constructed so that they had a hollow running through the centre. What struck me most about the whole scene was that although the children were being served ‘food’ and ‘food’ was being prepared in the kitchen there was no smell of cooking that I could identify. There was a smell in the air and it permeated my clothes and hair so that when I left the room the sense of depression I had about the whole thing was accompanied by this smell. The whole time I was in that canteen I did not see one ingredient or item of food that I could identify as primary produce, not a piece of fruit or a vegetable. It is in this environment that we expect our children to learn well, maintain high levels of concentration through the day and become fit and healthy adults.

Schools are places of education and they should be setting the standards for children to learn. It is not simply a case of saying that academy schools should, like state controlled schools, have to meet minimum nutritional standards with regard to the food they feed their pupils, although this might help in the first instance but we do need to look at a situation where it has become acceptable to feed children what I can only describe as ‘crap’. How many adults must have been involved in the chain that led to the food being on the plates in front of those children. The meat suppliers, who know they must be providing the cheapest quality of ‘meat’ to go into the food chain, the food manufacturers, who know it is going to feed our nation’s children, the food supply companies from whom the schools get their ingredients for school meals, the head cook at the school, the canteen staff and the staff of the school who presumably are offered similar food to eat and then the poor innocents, the children at the end of the chain, into whose bellies this stuff ends up.

George Orwell writing about the nation’s diet in the 1930s got it right and it appears that we could learn a lot from his experience of travelling around parts of Britain.

“A man dies and is buried, and all his words and actions are forgotten, but the food he has eaten lives after him in the sound or rotten bones of his children.” He even went on to say that

“Changes in diet are more important than changes of dynasty or religion. Yet is curious how seldom the all importance of food is recognised.”

Wise words from a wise man that should be heeded.