The head teacher of my children’s new school is trying to convince me to let them have school lunches. She is sure they will be able to provide vegan options, and has offered to speak to the caterers. I am very appreciative of her efforts – not all schools are so accommodating – but my girls will be having packed lunches. I reecognise that I am in the fortunate position of being able to reject the offer of free school meals in favour of spending my weekends and evenings preparing lunch-boxes. Oh joy!
Last week the Mirror quoted Carmel McConnell of the charity Magic Breakfast, which delivers free breakfasts to schools serving 8500 of the UK’s poorest children: “one in four children only get one hot meal a day – their school lunch”. For those children the school holidays are a peculiar form of hardship. While most kids look forward to the end of term, those with parents who cannot afford to feed them even the cheapest forms of calories look forward to going back – “noticeably thinner at the start of the autumn term”.
Meanwhile the School Food Plan means that from September 2014 “practical cookery and food education will now be compulsory in the new national curriculum for pupils up to the end of key stage 3 (age 14).
The thing is, it’s not the temperature of the food that is most important in determining whether or not it is nutritious. In fact, heating food reduces its nutritional value and promotes the production of potentially harmful chemicals. Cooking is also a complex process that requires skill and understanding to do well. Most people are capable of cooking basic meals if well taught, but some are not and many of us do it but do it badly, on the whole. Cooking takes time and requires at the very least a source of heat, which adds the risk of fire.
On the other hand, eating food in the form that nature provides it is simple and quick. Pick, wash, peel or chop and eat. Maybe blend if you have electricity, but it isn’t necessary. That’s it. A knife and chopping board are helpful. Washing up is minimal. Everybody wins.
Of course the one in four children who only get one hot lunch per day are not being fed healthy high-raw dinners at home. They are just not being fed, and a hot school lunch in that situation is undoubtedly a good thing. But we should be questioning why we are implementing population-wide initiatives to feed all children five hot dinners a week in term-time, and to teach them to prepare similar meals at home.
We should also be questioning why it is that the foods that are the most important for human health – fresh fruits and vegetables – are also the most expensive source of calories. This issue has profound implications for anyone concerned with reducing the level of health inequality between the richest and poorest members of our society.
In the meantime I have been thinking about reinstating my Recipes page, and wondering what I might be able to offer that is of genuine value. The answer is quick and simple to prepare high-raw dishes (the kind that I would like to see on children’s menus everywhere), complete with nutritional information and cost breakdown. I hope this will provide frazzled parents, cash-strapped schools, and caterers and restauranteurs of all kinds with a real practical alternative and way forwards in feeding children healthy, nutritious and delicious food.