Making a meal of it

By | 5 November 2013

School food has changed beyond recognition. And that’s something which benefits everyone.

You don’t have to be Einstein to know the value of food. It is, as you might say, elementary. It is particularly elementary in confined spaces, such as hospitals and perhaps cruise ships, where meals are a welcome and interesting diversion in days which can be rigorously similar to each other and the speculation about what is to come on the next plate to appear can be an entertainment in itself.
The diversion of the meal can be a perk of a long-haul flight, but is often a disappointment and even cause for grump. On a recent Premium Economy return from Hong Kong, I commented that the menu coming back to England was exactly the same as the one going out two days previously. The steward smiled and said, “Oh no, we don’t do that.” Pause for internal debate over wisdom of drawing him down by his lapels and saying, “I was on the flight, Sunshine, and I do not think you were. So when I say it was the same meal, does it not occur to you that I might have personal experience of this menu, and you do not, and even if it was not supposed to be the same menu, it was, and the right answer when I remarked upon it was, ‘I’m so sorry madam, I am sure the typhoon affected our schedules – but can I get you anything else instead?’ Does that not occur to you, hmm?”
You’d be surprised how fast the rant can run through your head while you decide, on balance, to smile through gritted teeth and eat the fish, which may have been as much travelled as I was.
Few spaces are as confined and monotonous, and therefore crying out for great food, or perhaps even champagne, as planes when the flight hours are in double figures. But there are no doubt some students who would say schools are just as bad for creating a captive audience who will really look forward to mealtimes, particularly boarding schools. In a day school, you only have to deal with school lunch, and can escape to home cooking at the end of the day. But in a boarding school, you are at the mercy of the chef and his team seven days a week, three times a day. Food had better be good. Ideally, and today likely to be demanded by students, parents and the Head, it had better be great.
Most boarding schools are a step up from where they were 10 years ago simply because they have a chef at all. The days of ‘Cook’, with few professional qualifications and perhaps a background in catering for the Forces in various field kitchens under gunfire in distant parts of the globe, seem to be long gone. Jamie Oliver, of course, had a lot to do with banging on the kitchen doors of day schools up and down the land and demanding better of those who toiled in them and those who paid them to do it. You could hardly call it cooking if you opened a packet and bunged something battered, frozen and unidentifiable in the oven or heated up whatever was in a tin and called it veg. Jamie’s programmes were a revelation to the TV-viewing world, which was surprising given that most of the population would have suffered such meals in their own school days and really thought little of it.
In my own day, school food was horrible. Simply horrible. I think the experience of it reduced my appetite for ever, and I have never weighed more than eight and a half stone. Bringing sandwiches to school was forbidden because of the mess the renegade non-school-dinner people would pile up in the precious classrooms. So there was no choice, short of moving house. Dreadful dinners it was. Then a girl called Eirlys arrived – big, brassy and wholly unafraid of anyone in authority. She announced that she was bringing sandwiches, and there would not be a problem in the classroom, OK? Authority bowed to the natural force of this large young woman’s appetite and intentions, and by Christmas half the class was having a jolly lunchtime in the classroom. Not so much a school dinner, more a bit of a party. Suddenly it was cool to be one of ‘us’, instead of one of ‘them’.
It has been reported that when the Lib Dems suggested free school meals for all children in the first three years of primary school, avoiding an ‘us and them’ culture was one of their aims. Press reports speak of their wanting “a one-school culture where all teachers and children eat together”. A second newspaper was quick to predict small children having to queue for longer and eat in shifts – bad news – and whatever was said about a nutritious hot meal being the passport to better school performance and a healthy ever after life, there were deep suspicions about political parties horse-trading lollipops during the conference season.
In fact the statistics for packed lunches are pretty horrendous, with (allegedly) only 1% of them meeting the nutritional requirements which apply to all school dinners. Deep personal experience plus the sight of some of Jamie’s early school dinners leaves me pleased that there are nutritional requirements. The pilot studies from 2009 to 2011 giving free school lunches to primary children in Durham and in Newham, East London and then assessing how health and academic performance were affected are quite convincing. Hungry children cannot concentrate, fall behind in lessons, may become disruptive. Removing the stigma of free school meals by giving everyone a meal causes a welcome social levelling in the dining room, so maybe they do become hubs of community living, in which conversation and table manners also thrive.
What I can say is that in the boarding schools I visit, the food is always amazingly good: big, light dining rooms, often carpeted so you are not deafened by the scrape of chairs as well as the buzz of conversation. Culinary choices to bewilder the newcomer and prevent anyone muttering on Friday, “Fish and chips again …” Actually, there will almost certainly be fish for Friday, but it will come with tartare sauce and chips in dinky baskets (when I was at school I used to take a bottle of vinegar to school every Friday – the chips were inedible without it, and no, they did not supply vinegar). But there will always, now, be a vegetarian option, and a salad bar, and fresh bread or rolls, and soup if you want it, and a range of desserts, including fresh fruit. And notice is taken of dietary requirements, and food with nuts is labelled and – well, school dining rooms have begun to feel like Aladdin’s cave, full of wondrous things to tempt the palate and feed the soul as well as the frame.
Armies may march on their stomachs, but pupils thrive and grow on theirs. And so do schools. Once parents have checked out the exam results, they will certainly ask about the food, and may even ask to try it for themselves. A great lunch can clinch the choice of school. In fact, it’s not just a meal; it’s marketing.
Hilary Moriarty is National Director of the Boarding Schools’ Association.  This post originally appeared at http://ie-today.co.uk/News/making_a_meal_of_it

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