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Let them Eat School Dinners

A lot of people were happy, or at least hopeful, about the TV series Jamie Oliver's School Dinners. To begin with there was the famous chef himself, whose on-screen success persuaded the supermarket giant Sainsburys to go back on their intention of ditching Oliver as the star of their TV ad campaign and instead give him a contract for another series, boosting his pay to £1.2 million. This was because Sainsburys were also happy; while Jamie was lambasting school dinners their sales of organic produce went up by 12 percent a week. Cherie Blair was happy; her opinion of the dinners her son Leo eats at school was: "They're not terrific, to be honest. I am seriously thinking about sending him with a packed lunch".

The teachers had to be happy in view of the evidence - which was available a long time before Oliver got interested in the subject - that nutrition affects a child's behaviour and response to learning. A study Food For Thought (2003) by Derek Gillard reported that in 1999 two schools in South London and the Young Offenders Institution in Aylesbury, both behaviour and achievement were better when diets were improved. Finally, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly was happy because, far from being embarrassed by the exposure of dietary deficiencies in the schools, she was able to claim that she had thought of it first, that when she took over at Education one of the first problems she wanted to tackle was that kids were being fed fattening, poisonous rubbish in school.

Advertising

On the other hand there were those who were not happy at what Jamie did. Ex- Education Secretary David Blunkett did not appear to be delighted; in a rare and overdue spasm of less-than-fervent penitence he had to confess that while he was in charge of the schools he "probably" had not done enough to improve the pupils' food. The £280 million promised by Ruth Kelly, perhaps in a flush of pre-election fever, to improve ingredients and staff training, seemed likely to provoke stresses among local and national government about who would have to make that kind of investment. Then what about the companies who make some of the food, like the infamous Turkey Twizzlers and Fish Portholes? Firms like Bernard Matthews, whose persistent catch phrase is "They're Bootifool", would not have welcomed the vengeful threat to their access to that bountiful market of under-nourished children.

Just how bountiful can be gauged by the money poured into advertising by the food industry. In 2001 nearly £200 million was spent on promoting chocolate, sweets and crisps - some of which presumably went to ex-football star Gary Lineker for his role advertising Walkers Crisps. In 2002 McDonald's advertising bill came to £42 million, including payments to Alan Shearer - another football hero - for his appearance in their TV campaign. And then there were the firms who prepare and dish out those awful school dinners; they were unhappy about the threat to their contracts with local education authorities and some of them made it clear that they were not about to surrender their rights without a fight. One of these is a company called New Schools but they do not actually get to heating the burgers or cooking the Turkey Twizzlers because they have sub-contracted it to another company called Atkins Asset Management, who in their turn have subcontracted it to an outfit called Scolarest.

Protest

The Guardian of 25 April reported on a protest about the food supplied by Scolarest in the London Borough of Merton. Scolarest claimed they had not had any complaints about the food and warned that any schools trying to opt out of their contracts may have to pay the equivalent of a year's profit as compensation. Meanwhile angry and anxious parents were in no doubt about the quality of what Scolarest supplies. One mother wrote to the newspaper that her children "have rarely eaten school dinners at their Merton school because of the poor quality of the contracted-out, underfunded provisions" and a teacher at Merton, who has three sons at schools there, said "the unbalanced diet in our schools is affecting the health of our children now and will change their health for years. They deserve better". Unhappily, the protests were energised by the assumption that food is produced and processed - by Scolarest, McDonalds or whoever - in order to nourish people. That is a nice idea but it does not fit in with the logic of capitalism's priorities. "For contractors," said the MP whose constituency includes Merton, "what matters is the bottom line".

An official concern over standards of childhood nutrition is not new. A particular incentive to tackle the problem was the fact that over a third of the volunteers to join the Army in the Boer War were too small, undernourished or sick to be allowed to take part in that imperialist enterprise. This was serious, as it cast doubt on how British capitalism would fight its future wars of which, it was assumed, there would be many. Better, ran the reasoning, to start feeding the children now. The advent of compulsory education was another spur to action; in 1889 the London School Board set up the Schools Dinner Association which supplied cheap, or in some cases free, school meals. In haste a Committee on Physical Deterioration was established and from that there emerged the 1906 Education (Provision of Meals) Act, which encouraged local authorities to provide meals at schools, on the well-founded assumption that the children were unlikely to get them at home.

The policy was developed between the wars until the 1944 Education Act set out that every child in a maintained school should be provided with a meal, the full cost of which was met by the state.

Poverty

The 1964 Labour government began the retreat from this high spot in education services in 1967, when they withdrew the 100 percent grant for school meals. In 1978 a White Paper on public expenditure opted for halving the £380 million cost of providing school meals, which led to the lowering of standards and the introduction of junk food. The big assault came with the Thatcher governments, which abolished the statutory duty on Local Education Authorities to lay on meals for all school children and then introduced compulsory competitive tendering. This opened the way for the private companies which, to screw the largest possible profit from the arrangement, introduced the cafeteria system and the provision of junk fast food like burgers and chips. The day of Scolarest had dawned.

The link between nutrition and health and behaviour seems so obvious and the evidence for it seems so overwhelming, that it hardly needs to be established through investigation. Booth and Rowntree surveyed the extent of the deeper levels of poverty in London and York respectively in the late 19th and early 20 centuries but the limits to the usefulness of their work can be gauged by the fact that when Booth began to collect his data he thought the extent of  deprivation to be over-estimated and that in any case the condition of many of those in poverty was self-inflicted. The problem today is critical but in many respects different.

As Jamie Oliver and many others have found, malnutrition is not always a matter of lack of food but of having access only to food which may be filling but is nutritionally deficient. That is itself related to working class poverty. At a Diet and Health Forum in October 2003 Julia Unwin, Deputy Chair of the Food Standards Agency, said "Children a century ago were not getting enough of the right things to eat. British children today are eating too much of the wrong things. Within the last month the Health Development Agency has spelled out in chilling detail the scale of the problem we face…And hardest hit are those worst placed to react - children living in socially deprived circumstances. We are talking here about a disease of poverty."

So Jamie Oliver may not have been aware of what he was cooking up, when he set out to expose school dinners on TV. Malnutrition is an aspect of poverty, which is an inescapable reality of capitalism's class society. Food is a commodity - produced for sale and profit - like all of capitalism's wealth. That is why the companies could fight to assert the legal right to safeguard their profits, even at the cost of malnourishing school kids. It is a typically tragic mess of this social system, that children can be starved as they are fed.

IVAN