May 28, 2023
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: We could learn a lesson about school dinners

IF YOU have been making back-to-school preparations in recent weeks, you may have been given a menu along with the book list and uniform requirements.

Thirty-six primary schools – at least one in every county – have been chosen to pioneer a scheme which will deliver a hot meal at lunchtime to some 6,600 children.

It’s a good idea. Firstly, and this is sad to tell, it will stop some children going hungry. Also, it has been shown that a hot meal in the middle of the day improves energy levels and makes children happier and better at schoolwork.

I like to think it might also encourage healthy eating and introduce children to a social habit that seems to be vanishing from family life – the wonderful practice of sitting round a table sharing food and conversation.

I fear, however, that the scheme may not succeed on either count. The 36 schools do not have canteens – they seem to have been specifically chosen for that reason – and the children will eat in their classrooms at their desks, so the social aspect is unlikely to flourish.

And healthy eating? Well, the hot meals will certainly not be unhealthy and there will be vegetarian and vegan options. But the central menu will rotate round a selection of curries, pastas, pizzas, chicken goujons and the like. The children will love it but nutritionists may have their doubts. It depends, I suppose, on the quality of the food that goes into this fare.

In Britain, where hot meals have been a school staple for decades, the scheme has fallen into disrepute because of the awful rubbish that is often dished up.

Things are very different in France. There, a school meal must include a starter, salad, main course, cheese plate and desert. By law, schools must allow children at least 45 minutes to eat their lunch. No single meal is repeated within a two-month period of 32 school days.

In an article in Time magazine, Vivienne Walt, an American living in Paris, complained that parents are discouraged from entering French school buildings, let alone the classrooms. “I cannot tell you what my child learns, paints or builds on any given school day,’’ she wrote. “But I do know that on (Tuesday) he ate hake in Basque sauce, mashed pumpkin, cracked rice, Edam cheese and organic fruits.’’

She knew because menus for the coming week are posted every Monday on a notice board outside every school in France. They are there because French parents care about what their children eat. Perhaps they should care a little more about what their children learn, but that is beside the point.

French parents care what their children eat and are prepared to pay for it. French schools have a budget of around €6 – it varies from region to region – for each child’s lunch and the local authority pays half of that. In Britain the total allocation for a school lunch is about €3; the quantity is much the same, it’s the quality that suffers.

In Ireland’s trial scheme, the hot meals are being provided free. If it is extended, I presume there will be a charge. It should veer towards the French model in both standards and price, with subsidies for families that cannot meet the cost.

Somehow, I just can’t see the day when Irish children will be sitting down to a school meal of hake in Basque sauce with mashed pumpkin and cracked rice, but we could do better than pasta and chicken goujons.

It will be at least two years before the scheme is extended – time for our school caterers to take some French lessons.



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