A Parent Shares Their School Meals Experience

26 May 2017

Just over a year ago I decided to volunteer as a parent helper in my child's school.

Along with photocopying and helping with craft projects and classroom resources, one of my jobs is to oversee lunch in the dining hall. This has been the most eye opening experience of my life because I see what the children eat and do not eat every day.

All pupils must clear away their plates when finished their meal. They do this at a station at the end of the dining room, which has soapy water buckets for cutlery, bins for general waste and food. An adult always oversees what the children are disposing of. If we feel a child has not eaten enough we will often send them back to their table to try and eat some more.

What has actually amazed me more than anything is the amount of food wasted at school dinners. I see this every day – the weight of the food waste bin each day is shocking. The majority of the waste is, I am sorry to say, fruit and vegetables. Much of my time is spent encouraging the children to try their vegetables for me - even one pea is sometimes all I ask - but it is an uphill struggle and one which I feel I am losing.

I'm not even sure how you tackle this. The pupils can recite the information about vegetables being healthy and necessary to ward off disease. They can tell me all about healthy diets and what's good for you. They are surrounded by their own classwork on healthy eating on the walls of the dining hall, yet still it makes no difference to what is eaten.

I must admit to finding the food served in my school poor. After my first week I despaired as the quality and presentation leave a lot to be desired. My son stays for packed lunches as I can then provide him with a balanced and healthy appetising lunch, which the school dinner programme cannot do at this time. I also choose not to take the school lunch as even a simple thing like a baked potato was awful.

At home I cook all my food from scratch. I am very aware of the use of sugar, salt and fat in my cooking and the food groups needed to provide a healthy meal. It is disappointing that in order for something to be served as healthy at a school dinner it is made unappetising. A good example is the chicken burger, served in bread crumbs in a dry burger roll with a side of salad. It is almost universally thrown in the bin as the children find it too dry to eat! I actually tried to eat one after the children complained and found it very difficult not to gag. When I asked the dinner ladies why they served the burger like this, they replied “because it's healthy we’re not allowed to add anything to it!” This is madness - adding low fat mayonnaise or a low fat spread or even reduced-sugar tomato sauce, would make them more appealing. But no, they are thrown in the bin.

Even the atmosphere and the setting of the school dinner hall is not something that promotes healthy eating. Our school is at capacity so the school dinner hall is so full you can actually have pupils wandering around looking for tables. With only a 45 minute lunch break, many of the kids eat a few mouthfuls before rushing out to play.

We have lost our connection with real food and enjoying it as a social experience and it saddens me to see a whole generation growing up with poor quality, rushed meals in overcrowded dining halls.