Oliver’s Army

I wrote this for Playground Online Magazine…


Every lunchtime I see the troops marching out of local schools and colleges and heading into town to fill up on burgers, coke, kebabs and chocolate. They are ‘Oliver’s Army’, ironically spawned as a direct result of Jamie Oliver’s well-intentioned bid to put healthy eating back on school dinner menus. Their enemies are dinner ladies, armed with spatulas and steaming trays of broccoli and shepherds’ pie; their allies the local shopkeepers, for whom the kids (and they are kids, these pale, spotty, malnourished casualties of war, let’s not forget that) have become a vital source of income in these harsh, double-dip recession times.

An hour or so later they traipse back into school, their hunger sated, to the accompaniment of stainless steel cookware being banged against the walls of brown recycling bins and the rumble of tumbling vegetables as they’re added to the steaming piles of compostable waste. On the High Street triangular plastic boxes from Tesco’s Metro dance in the breeze around overflowing bins, sardonic reminders that a few of the kids still choose to go with packed lunches, just like mother used to make.

Winding back a few years, my own son ate a packed lunch throughout his primary days. He hated it. He didn’t object to the content of his Chelsea FC lunchbox, mind you, it was more the fact that he had to take ‘second lunch’ and miss sitting with his friends. Truth be told he actually preferred his packed lunch to the turkey twizzlers, nuggits and yoggits his friends were scarfing down, because he’d never really eaten that kind of mass produced kak, being both gluten and dairy intolerant.

This, I would add, was back in the days before Carol Vorderman et al started talking about ‘detox diets’ and gluten/dairy free became the fashionable choice for ladies who suffered occasional wind, and several years before supermarkets started filling their shelves with G/F D/F ready-meal alternatives to the turkey twizzlers, nuggits and yoggits today’s ‘special dieters’ can enjoy. I, and he, had no options: If he wasn’t to suffer constant constipation demanding a raft of different laxatives and fibre drinks coupled with nightly bouts of vomiting then we had to cook from scratch and it had to be largely ‘unmessed with’.

Then came Jamie Oliver. My son was just finishing year five at the time, and came home from school beaming from ear to ear waving a letter that informed me of changes in the school catering arrangements that would enable him to eat with his friends. In response to the J.O. campaign schools in the area had upped their game and healthy school lunches were back on the menu!

The new arrangements were to start in September, so I contacted the head of the new catering team to touch base about my son’s requirements. She e-mailed me sample menus, and over the holidays we identified products and cooking methods that could be incorporated into the school kitchen to ensure gluten free alternatives throughout the term. My son went back on the first day of year six sans lunchbox, looking as happy as a pig in the proverbial.

I knew there was something up as soon as he got home. Picking the front door up and putting it back on its hinges I asked him what was the matter. He had been, pretty much, the only kid who had eaten a school dinner, the rest of his year being so terrified at the prospect of encountering a vegetable that they had all switched to packed lunches.

He reverted to a packed lunch himself within a few days, though the contents of his lunchbox varied greatly to those of his friends. Cheese strings, chocolate, cake and savoury biscuits seemed to be the popular choices among his friends, along with crisps, fizzy drinks and ‘corner’ yoggits. I recall parents planning to picket the school when they sent home a letter asking that coke be left out of lunch boxes in favour of water…

For those who think I’m gloating or being judgemental I’m not (well, maybe a little, but nobody’s perfect) and I do know how hard it can be to get kids to eat a healthy, balanced diet. But that old adage of the Jesuits that goes ‘give me a child until the age of seven…’ makes a lot of sense, and the eating patterns we enable our kids to establish at primary school can, as ‘Oliver’s Army’ clearly demonstrates, last well beyond year six.

NB: I posted this to share on a linky thing I saw on Twitter. I couldn’t find a ‘badge’ to link via, so hope this will do instead: Random Rantings of a Tattooed Mummy



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