Lunch lessons

Whether it’s lumpy mashed potato or soggy sprouts, most of
us can recall some stomach churning memory of school dinners. But
not Colin Inglis, leader of Hull Council. At the age of 47, he
claims to be too old to remember what his were like. Strange then
that he has such a passion for revolutionising school lunches in
his area.

From April 19, school children at eight primary schools in Hull
have been receiving free school lunches, regardless of their
parents’ background or income. Over the coming few months,
free lunches will be rolled out to the remaining 72 primary schools
so that by early next year 21,000 children will be given the chance
to tuck in.

So what prompted such drastic action? Inglis says that Hull has
always had problems with school attainment and tends to prop up the
bottom end of GCSE league tables. One reason for introducing the
free lunches – as well as breakfast, fruit and after-school club
refreshments – was to give school children an incentive to turn up,
and help them to be in the best physical state for learning.

However there are hopes for other long term benefits too, as
Hull has high levels of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

“Hopefully it’s going to have an impact on all of those
statistics. Catch them young and teach them to eat healthily seems
a good way of doing it,” says Inglis.

He came up with the free school meals idea, an initiative he
links with socialism and universal benefit. “A primary school lunch
costs £1 head at the moment, and a lot of families can’t
afford it. Often they are people who are not on benefits and so
don’t get free lunches, but they are not so rich that they
don’t have to scrabble around for £5 a week. It’s
people who are in work but don’t earn a lot of money.”

And this would seem to tally with the views of parents, many of
whom don’t look for jobs because it’s not in their
financial interest to do so.

“One mother on benefits who has three children said that it will
now be worth her while going back to work. The £15 for school
meals had made it impossible. A lot of people are in the
benefit/poverty trap where it’s not worth going to work
because the extra bits and pieces do not make it worthwhile,” he

Needless to say, not everyone has been so receptive of the
scheme, with some people complaining that it is tantamount to
subsidising wealthier folk earning salaries of £100k or so a

“But you can count them on one hand. Hull is a fairly low wage
economy. There are some rich people but it’s not common,”
says Inglis.

Others have argued that the higher council taxes mean that money
from impoverished pensioners will go towards the free lunches. “But
most pensioners are grandparents and so that argument doesn’t
stack up”, Inglis points out.

The council estimates that the free meals will cost £2m
this year and around £3m for a complete year. But a 100 per
cent take up rate is not anticipated given that some children will
go home for lunch.

Under the Education Act 2000 a charge has to be made for school
lunches unless certain criteria are met, explains Inglis. But the
council gained a parliamentary order that exempts them from that

The project will be evaluated over three years and could be
extended to secondary schools, where the entrenched “burger
culture” is likely to be harder to overcome. But the scheme is not
just about getting children to eat a healthier diet – there’s
a social skills perspective too.

“Some teachers have said that they get kids in who don’t
know how to use a knife and fork. They have been used to sitting in
front of the telly picking things up with their fingers,” explains

Persuading children, and their parents, that healthy foods can
be enjoyable may take some time.

In some places there has already been resistance, “where a kid
has looked at a sprout for the first time and thought what the
hell’s that”, says Inglis.

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