School meals! Argh! School meals!
At the secondary school I went to, school meals were brought in by a Brakes Bros. lorry, first thing in the morning. There were basically two options; Chips and a deepfried meat-thing, or cold pasta with some kind of sauce and salad. Note, you couldn’t mix and match these options. Either you were healthy, or you weren’t. Either you got hot food, or you didn’t. Either you ate meat and fat, or water and carbs. Dinner came with one glass of either water or orange squash (200ml) and woe betide if you wanted more. Afters, such as they were, was a single gingerbread biscuit, or doughnut, or prepackaged brownie, or similarly disappointing bit of paffy carbs. If you went down the “healthy” aisle, you technically couldn’t have one either.
By about third year, I had given up on school meals, and effectively fasted from 6am, when I had breakfast, to 4pm, when I got tea, other than a bar of chocolate from the snack machine (And for this I was ridiculed every day of my life – It was “disgusting”to eat chocolate in the mornings, apparently) and a can of fizzy p. We weren’t allowed offsite, but once in a while I would gather up the guts to risk detention and go to the local cafe (Ah, the good old Copper Kettle!) for a scone and a cup of tea, or a bowl of vegetable soup. You know all that statistical evidence about schoolkids concentrating better when they’ve had a good meal? Well, I would always be a million times more alert in the afternoon on days when I’d managed to get out into the fresh air (Oh, yes, apart from on hot summer days, pupils were effectively also trapped in the school buildings from 8am until 3.30, other than when they were queueing outside for their meal) and eat something. Then again, it seems like shooting fish in a barrel to even begin to compare the mental states of someone who’s shuffled a hundred yards down the drive in a blizzard, to eat cold pasta in cheese sauce with a cup of orange juice and a shortbread biscuit, to someone who’s gone for a brisk walk in the snow, eaten a freshly baked potato and mindbendingly hot curry, washed it down with a pint of hot coffee and maybe finished it off with a steamed pudding or a treacle sponge and custard. To complete that mental image of what Young Perci was doing at dinner, pupils weren’t allowed to read in the dining hall. I’d steal a copy of the Guardian from the school library (It’s fair enough, nobody else read them!) and peruse it at my leisure. So, I got a good meal AND a quick update on what the world was doing, whilst everyone else got to force down some dross and deal with a bunch of schoolkids. Of course, like I said, I could only manage this once in a while – Maybe once or twice a month at most, and I only did it in winter when I really needed the energy – So most of the time I starved and fell asleep in afternoon lectures.
So, what’s my point? Well, if you couldn’t guess, today it’s school meals. I’ve heard quite a bit of praise for “Give them one meal, no options, and they can damn well lump it”. Well, fair enough non-religious, non-vegetarian, allergy-free students, that’s mighty white of you. No, that’s not the answer.
Let’s make short work of a few more straw men, eh?
Kids don’t eat healthy food: Patently false. Roasted vegetables done in olive oil are healthy and delicious. Grilled chicken in assorted marinades is healthy and delicious. Rabbit is healthy and delicious. Massive soups, stews, curries and casseroles are healthy and delicious. Basically anything involving noodles floating in broth is delicious. You may note that I’m skewing heavily towards wintery foods in this little diatribe, and I am; It’s sodding cold outside today, and I can’t think of summer meals without feeling a bit empty.
Cooking all proper like that is going to be dead expensive: Maybe, if you’re only used to the idea of buying tiny amounts of prepacked vegetables and meat from the local mini-supermarket. You can get literally tonnes of fruit and veg for cheap, just by buying in bulk, going direct to farms, and reserving exotic things from far-flung places for special occassions. Go straight to the slaughterhouse to get good deals on meats (You’ll probably have to do the butchery yourself though) and depending on where you are you’ll probably have local marksmen taking rabbit, woodpigeon and somtimes deer as pest controllers, and they’ll often sell you their excess. Tiny amounts of meat, but enough to flavour a stock, or add a bit of protein to a stir-fry. And remember, that’s only if you want to have meat on the menu at all. Brown rice, in big bags, is cheap and good for you and can be used to bulk out nearly anything.
Dinner ladies will never go for all this nonsense: This may shock you, but most dinner ladies are actually cooks, and the whole catering-van-here-defrost-these setup is basically wasting their talents. I’ve seen inside the kitchens of my primary school, when I went to work there as a sixth-former. Pans big enough to feed two hundred people out of. Walk-in fridges. Electric whisks that could moonlight as cement mixers. And, more to the point, dinner ladies that actually got to cook. Comparing the kitchen smells (I still didn’t eat at either of them, instead going for a large coffee and a samosa on the hour-long commute between schools) I have to say that the wholesome reek of roasting potatoes and boiling carrots is a thousand times more heartening than the cloying aroma of transfats being heated up in an oven.
My solution. Every cold day, two large pots of soup/stew/curry, at least one of them vegan. A selection of prepared vegetables. Two kinds of meat. Two sorts of stodgy pudding, and fruit. Kids allowed any combination of the above, basically as long as they can physically eat most of what they’ve taken. After a few days of everyone going mental for double helpings of puddings and no vegetables, they’ll get a right craving for proper food. Let people plan their own menu, and they’ll eat vaguely sensibly.
Every time sonething’s about to run out, the students get asked; What would you like to see done with the food? Are we on to a good thing with the sticky toffee pud? Is it a waste of time buying all these red onions, when you could go for white just as well? Shall we try subbing out the peas for beans, since we’re growing beans in the garden? Comment cards and active participation will be a thing.
And that thing I mentioned about the garden! Did you notice it? Well, the school will have a garden, or possibly a poly-tunnel, or both, in which the students and staff can grow things for school meals. Of course, it’d be difficult or impossible to grow enough in a small enough patch to feed everyone at the school, but it could grow garlic, onions, chillies, and other things which are basically just seasonings, and could supplement the bought-in vegetables whenever things crop. Maintaining the garden would be part of the whole educational process, and I’ll talk about that later on.
But WHEN will the pupils eat? Obviously, there has to be some kind of rota, unless the dining hall is big enough for everyone, and nobody minds queueing. In my plan, the hall would be open all day, serving at least drinks, toast, thin soup (Think miso or cream of tomato, rather than anything massively hearty) and scones, and dinner would last from about eleven until about two, with students dropping by whenever they didn’t have a lesson. Tea would commence at about four, and run until eight, then there’d be supper (Cocoa, biscuits, leftovers) until about midnight, after which point the pupils would be back to tea and toast, or cooking for themselves. Breakfast would run from as early as the earliest student needed it, until the start of the latest lesson to start in the morning. Fruit would be a big part of it, as would coffee Get ’em whilst they’re young.
Cooking for themselves, you say? Well, yeah. It’s not fair to tell people that physically CAN access food that they’re not allowed to, and many a surreptitious binge on chocolate hobnobs could be averted by letting students reheat leftovers, make themselves pots of tea and cook simple stuff. There’d be rules, just to make it manageable: Nothing that takes more than two pans, or one pan and one mixing bowl, nothing that takes more than an hour to make. Whoever cooks washes up. Students can pool their resources (Sam, Jamie and Chaz want to make a Sunday roast. Together, they can use six pans, and take three hours to make it.) I think that students, especially younger and less coordinated ones,would be allowed cooking mentors, who would help them with the difficult fiddlywork, stop them from burning themselves, and frankly just give them someone to talk to whilst they cooked.
This being MY school, leftovers would either be fed to the school’s pigs (They keep the orchard from turning into waspy hell!), or the biomass electicity generator, or turned into compost.