When I was in primary (elementary) school I had school dinner (lunch) every day. My mum counted on us having a good meal, to the point where our evening meal at home until I was at secondary school (6th grade) was a sandwich and a bag of crisps. I think we probably did have pretty good lunches, though I remember not liking the liver very much. I actually liked the flavour and the texture, but I didn't like the 'rubber bands' you had to cut out of it. I remember getting told off by the dinner ladies for 'playing' with our food when we stirred the dollop of jam into the semolina to make the semolina pink. I liked semolina, but we never had it at home. We sometimes had pink custard too, which I'd forgotten about completely until another blogger mentioned it recently.
School lunches definitely weren't so good once we got to secondary school. I remember being served battered and deep-fried spam fritters and loving them. I actually added more salt! One day I was at the very end of the line and they had literally run out of food. My lunch that day was white rice and chips. That was the day I discovered that plain white rice could be made more interesting with the addition of malt vinegar. By the time I was in the 6th form I was too lazy to walk to the other side of the school to get my lunch so I stopped having school lunches. In fact I think I stopped eating much of anything for lunch because I was too lazy to make a lunch to bring to school with me. I survived on coffee and Lipton's Cup-a-Soup because we had a water heater in the 6th form common room and everyone had their own jar of instant coffee and CoffeeMate. I had coffee when I arrived at school, one at mid-morning break, one at lunch after my Cup-a-Soup, and another if I had a study hall in the afternoon. A cup of tea when I got home from school, and a coffee after dinner, and it's a miracle I ever slept!
After I moved on to university, they changed to a cafeteria system at school so that instead of paying a set price for a (supposedly) balanced meal, kids could choose what they wanted. I have no doubt chips outsold everything else.
I was pleased when I heard of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school meals in the UK, though I don't know how successful it was. Certainly, there were stories in the press of parents circumventing his plan for no junk food by delivering fish'n'chips to their poor children who couldn't stomach the thought of a healthy meal.
Jamie has now made a new series for American TV about food – how families eat, what kids get at school and why, like the UK, the diet of processed food and snacks is causing so many health and obesity problems. I choose to send my kids to school with a lunch from home, as I have not been impressed with the lunch menus. The series was filmed in Huntington, West Virginia and from what I've seen, the school lunches there seem very similar to school lunches here, several states away. I've watched the first two hours of the series and I have to say some of it seems to be a setup. One of the 'lunch ladies' (who seems confused by that title) seems convinced that nothing he does will succeed. Given that the entire series has probably been filmed already, I am guessing that she eventually will see the light and become one of his greatest supporters.
The first meal Jamie served was in competition with the 'regular' school meal, and of course most of the kids chose the meal they were familiar with. The next meal, all the kids were served Jamie's menu. The administrators complained that Jamie had not provided nutritional analyses of the meals, and had not provided two starches 'as required'. Why was he not told in advance his meals had to meet certain nutritional requirements? Well, it does make for more dramatic television . . .
He was 'allowed' to serve a third meal, which initially was no more successful than the first two. Part of the problem was that in order to eat his food, the kids needed a knife and fork. Why is that a problem you ask? American public schools (at least none that I've been in) do not provide knives for their students to use. Well, I can see their point - they use plastic cutlery, and a plastic knife is usually pretty useless. I did lunch duty in one school for two years, and there was one meal (some kind of meat patty served with gravy) that the kids really needed a knife for. Most kids would pick the patty up with the fork and then nibble around the patty, never taking it off the fork. Practical, but hardly good table manners. There were two of us on lunch duty and every time this meal was served, we would go into the kitchen and ask for real knives, and then would go around the room asking the kids if they wanted us to cut their lunch up for them.
Eventually, we managed to persuade the woman running the kitchen that for that one meal in the menu cycle the kids could be trusted with plastic knives. Yes, I said trusted. Her reasoning for not providing knives was the kids couldn't be trusted. Excuse me? Like they couldn't poke each other's eyes out equally effectively (if not more so) with a plastic fork? Actually, I think she was following policy set by higher ups, as she's really a very reasonable lady. Once the kids were given the plastic knives, I realized we had another problem. Most of the kids (and I kid you not) DID NOT KNOW HOW TO USE THEM! Now instead of going round the room cutting the kids' meals up for them, I had to go around the room teaching them how to use their knife and fork effectively.
Therefore, I was well aware before Jamie's new show that American kids as old as 10 years old may not actually know how to use a knife and fork. In the UK, on the other hand, I remember my mother saying that when she taught the reception class the parents were told that when their child started school at age 4 or 5 they needed to be able to use a knife and fork by themselves because the staff did not have time to help them. So I also understand why Jamie expected the kids in the US to be able to use a knife and fork, and his reaction when he found they couldn't. What completely threw me for a loop was the oppositional lunch lady's reaction when he said that in the UK kids as young as 4 and 5 are expected to be able to (and can) use a knife and fork. She said, in all seriousness, "Can you document that?" She honestly did not expect kids to be able to use a knife and fork!
Jamie asked if some of the kids could be made to stay at the lunch tables for a little longer and he started going around showing the kids how to use a knife and fork. The principal then started doing the same thing. Lo and behold, once the kids were EXPECTED to eat, and TAUGHT how to use a knife and fork so that they could eat the food, many more of them ate up and did in fact enjoy the food.
If we don’t expect our kids to be able to use a knife and fork, then they will never learn. If we don’t set expectations for our kids, they will have nothing to rise to. And quite frankly, I don’t think learning to use a knife and fork is a very high expectation, even for a kindergartner! Or is the US-UK cultural divide greater than I thought?
(Oh, and go read Expat Mum's post on this topic if you haven't already!)
16 minutes ago