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Friday, 12 July 2013

Don't Pack In Our Children's Packed Lunches

Today a report has been published which calls for the government to consider banning packed lunches.

Apparently, parents are providing sub-standard meals, which aren’t as nutritious as the school meals being offered at school. Media reports are claiming that the report (written by owners of a restaurant chain) calls for packed lunches to be banned, and for school meals to be compulsory, and free for everyone.

On the one hand I applaud them for trying to improve the nutritional intake of our children, and doing it while also trying to reduce the cost of raising them. It is sorely needed. When I was on a zoo trip with Lori’s class one child had Nutella on white bread for their sandwich, with crisps, followed by a chocolate bar for afters. I’m mortified if I send my two in with only fruit and no veg, let alone junk food that’s so inappropriate for a child’s packed lunch that it would be funny if it wasn't so sad. On the other hand, for the majority of parents.

I think that a simple comparison between a packed lunch and a school dinner is misleading, and the proposed solutions address the symptom of a disease (parents provide bad lunches) rather than a disease itself (parents don’t know/don’t care what should be in a healthy lunch).

 I’ll confess, I have an inherent bias TOWARDS to school dinners, while growing up, I always had them, and I sent my children to school assuming that I would always buy them school dinners too. It was convenient, relatively cheap (only £1.75 a day), and they’d be assured of a balanced meal.

I was wrong. It was convenient and cheap, but over time I began to suspect that they were not getting a healthy, nutritious, and filling meal made to the standards I would expect.

To illustrate, let’s compare a normal Lindsay-prepared lunchbox with the reports I would get from the children on what they would eat in their school dinners:

Lunchbox: 1 wholemeal sandwich or roll, with a reduced sugar jam, ham, or cheese. Usually eaten
Ham label checked to ensure welfare standards met for piggies. Usually eaten.
Batons of fresh cucumber. Usually eaten.
Red Pepper strips: Usually eaten.
Banana: Almost always eaten
Yoghurt tube/fruit winder/biscuitty bar: Always eaten
Babybel cheese: Always eaten
Orange or apple juice, squash, or water: Always drunk

Anything that isn’t eaten at lunchtime is consumed at after-school club or on the way home under Daddy orders. There’s normally no wastage, and we know exactly what they have or haven’t eaten. This has been absolutely critical with 2 children who tend towards anxiety over eating food in rushed scenarios (and the school lunch hall is loud, and rushed, and stressful), but who are not cunning or naughty enough to hide food and pretend they ate it.

And when they go to school lunches?

Well, the comments below are real ones that I have had back over the course of my lunch investigations:

Josie: I had a quorn burger.

Wow. Processed soya on a white bun. Great.

Josie: I had a baked potato with cheese, but the cheese tasted funny and so I didn’t eat it. Mr Devine [the head teacher] had it too and he agreed with me.

So, she ate the potato bit then had a sponge pudding with custard for after.

Lori: I had a baked potato with cheese, but I got up to go to the toilet and when I came back it had been cleared away and I didn’t know who to ask for more so I just went out to play.

She had no lunch.

Josie: I had strawberry milk to drink.

Filled with sugar. There’s a history of diabetes in the family. I try to minimise these types of hidden sugars in foods that people think are “healthy”.

Lori: Sausages! I didn’t eat my beans.

Oh great. More processed pork.

Josie: There was hardly anything left by the time I got down to eat, so I just had mashed potatoes and sausages.

See above.

There wasn’t a single day where one of them came home and described a meal that had more than a tiny portion of fresh fruit and vegetables in it, or meat that I could be assured was good quality.

My own golden rule when I maked the packed lunches, that I never break, is that I always must put at least three portions of fresh fruit and veg in the packed lunch (and it’s usually 4 or 5), and my bread product must always be wholemeal. The same can’t be said for the school dinner provision: - they might offer fruit and veg, but no one is making sure the children are either:

a) Selecting the healthy option
b) Actually eating the healthy option

And parents don’t know, because anything uneaten is just tipped into a bin. Furthermore, my house has more rules: all eggs free-range, all milk organic, meat from suppliers who are committed to animal welfare.

With school dinners, I have no control over those choices I can make at home. And at £1.75 per child, I highly doubt their using free-range eggs in their muffins.

To me, to ban packed lunches is completely missing the point about what the issue is: teaching parents on budgets how to feed their children healthily, and cheaply.

If some parents aren’t providing their children with healthy and nutritional packed lunches, then educate the parents and treat the underlying issue in the family!

 Don’t penalise the parents like us, who are trying our best to give our children fresh fruit and vegetables, and a healthy attitude to food. We aren’t being helped at all by a privatised school meal system which is failing to provide a decent standard of food, and our children would get much worse food if you forced us to take school dinners.

Further, if you don’t fix the underlying problem, what happens when the children go home? Sure, they might get one vaguely nutritious meal a day at school (and I am not convinced they would anyway), but if the family keeps on eating nuggets and chips for dinner every single day then it’s not really helping much.

Ultimately, plans to ban packed lunches smacks of big business dressing up their interests as a welfare concern. I’m sure all those school meal providers would be rubbing their hands with glee at the idea of millions more captive consumers, paid for by the state, all of whom have no opportunity to opt out or object if the standards are poor.

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