The fight for free meals
âOh Bachchoo Bachchoo
Slave to your desires â
So many frying pans
So many firesâŠ.â
From The Regretnama of Bachchoo
The British government, at the cost of about ÂŁ70 million a year, is to give every schoolchild under the age of seven a free meal each week day. The announcement has prompted an outpouring of statistics relating intelligence, academics and other achievements to proper nourishment in childhood and, of course, the obvious counter-statistics arising from studies relating underachievement to undernourishment in infancy.
It has also given rise to a debate about the best and most balanced menu for infant schools to adopt when the policy is implemented.
This is the first time a government has ventured to feed this young section of the masses, irrespective of whether the childâs family is rich or poor. Schools have for decades provided free school meals to children whose families have low incomes.
When Margaret Thatcher was the education secretary in the â70s, her ministry withdrew the free school milk that was dished out by the state to all schoolchildren. It earned her the sobriquet, âMargaret Thatcher, milk snatcher!â and the policy is still remembered by her detractors as the initiation of her nastiness. Now, a Conservative-led coalition seems to be making more than amends.
The move is prompted by the recognition that there are pockets of severe poverty in the UK. In the rare but still too frequent instance, this poverty is compounded by ignorance, neglect and cruelty which has led to the starvation and death of several infants and children too young or isolated to articulate the inhuman abuse by parents and step-parents.
The universality of provision for all schoolchildren will eliminate the stigma of poverty attached to those pupils who were on free school meals. In the â70s, I spent a decade as a secondary school teacher in London. The form teachers of each class had the task each morning while taking the attendance of collecting the âdinner moneyâ from the pupils who paid the school for their midday meal. Several of the families of pupils in each form would have been âmeans-testedâ and granted free school meals as a gratuity from the state. One of my more callous colleagues, with calculated cruelty, would take the register of his class and ask the pupils who paid for their meals to line up by his desk and he would collect their money. He would then shout âfree dinnersâ asking those on welfare meals to stand up to be identified and he would sadistically announce their names as he counted them.
I was aware that at least one lad from this teacherâs form would hide in the lavatory when the roll-call was being taken to avoid being identified as what this teacher through political prejudice regarded as freeloading or parasitic.
The boy used to go hungry till it came to my notice and I tactfully engineered his transfer to my form.
Another of my pupils was one of eight children of a Nigerian father, who worked as a postman, and an Irish mother who spoke with an extremely heavy Irish country accent. She was an unpleasant and foul-mouthed woman who approached me several times asking me to have one or the other of her sons arrested and sent to jail for stealing her money when she was asleep. She said she couldnât do it herself as the police wouldnât believe her. Her frequently used term of abuse for her children, for teachers and for the police was âloothermaansâ preceded by colourful adjectives. I didnât till much later understand that it was her pronunciation of âLuther menâ which meant Protestant as opposed to Catholic people. Besides all that she looked as though she ate very well at mealtimes and in-between, which was ironic as I soon discovered that the four boys from the family who came to our school were all on free dinners.
I also observed when on dinner duty in the dining rooms and when the ladies who dished out the meals announced towards the end of the lunch break that there was food left over and asked who wanted âsecondsâ, meaning a second helping, the four boysâ hands would shoot up eagerly. These boys ate more than their fill at school because they had no food at home.
I befriended the eldest of these lads and he confessed to me that there was never any food at home and so the eight children ate no breakfast and never had an evening meal. The mother and father would fetch food or cook for themselves and there was, they said, never enough for the children. I asked what they did during weekends when there were no school meals to be had. They went hungry and the more wily brother regularly stole food from grocery stores, bringing home eggs or potatoes which he would refuse to share with his brothers and sisters.
The few teachers who became aware of this situation set up a small fund for weekend food for the siblings and entrusted the money to the eldest boy who would then shop for and feed his siblings on Saturdays and Sundays.