The canteen: the missing part of the school food debate

My school canteen v Southern Fried Chicken. According to The Guardian, the battlelines are being drawn. Schools are going to get the freedom to offer price promotions and compete with takeaway food outlets.

Though the scale of his success may be disputed, Jamie Oliver’s campaign has ensured that school food is a political issue.

Yet there remains a major gap in this debate: the canteen itself. When students choose to hang around in the playground with a pack of crisps they are rejecting the place as much as they are the food.

Even if, as at my school, students aren’t allowed off the premises, they can bring in crisps to eat in the playground. They know that a couple of hours later they can pick something up from one of the many takeaways they pass en-route to the bus stop. The choice exists and it’s right that schools accept this.

Even those who don’t think it’s a school’s duty to feed its students well should recognise that teachers have to deal with the results of poor diets. When I see some of my students walking to school and having a “Red Bull breakfast”, it’s unsurprising that they don’t start the day in much of a mood for work.

It is no revelation that price increases put students off food. The research cited by the Guardian suggests that a “10% increase in the price of meals triggered to a drop of between 7 and 10% in the number of students eating canteen food”. I’ve seen this in my school.

I’m sure plenty of you have just read this and felt irritated that a time of cuts to key parts of education, I’m talking about nice canteens. Yet this proposal is rooted in grim pragmatism.

The scene is probably familiar to you. Lengthy queues for food. Long tables and benches. Clinical lighting and white walls. As some schools have proven, it doesn’t take much to make this slightly more pleasant.

Introduce a system of staggered queuing. Put something up on the walls. Turn on some music. Have round tables with proper chairs. I saw this in place recently at a school and was impressed by how much more convivial it made the atmosphere.

Lunchtime at many schools is the worst time of the day for behaviour. At my school, it’s the time when fighting and bullying are most prevalent. Such lunchtime chaos is consistently carried into afternoon lessons.

Creating a place where most students want to go and have lunch will help schools to control behaviour. Perhaps some of our frenetic teenagers might even discover the pleasure of sitting down and enjoying a conversation over a meal with their friends.

Originally published on Liberal Conspiracy