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Education, Food in Schools, Hunger and Learning, Poverty & Socio-Economic Status and Education

On those mystical children with packed lunches (Food in schools)

I read an interesting piece today about the perils of assuming kids in higher decile schools are being fed.

It resonated with me and gave me reason to ponder my own experiences and reflect on what opting into programmes can mean for those kids on the receiving end of the help.

rich kid poor kidAs a teenager in the UK, I went to a school that had an intake that was maybe two thirds middle class and one third working class. The former bused down to the school – we bused up.

There were (and are) no deciles in UK schools, but if were to hazard a guess I would say it would have been a decile 7-8 school.

Lunch time was a lesson in class and wealth.

The UK school lunches programme was subsidised so there was a small charge for the fabulous hot meals provided – one my parents could pay and were happy to do so. And if your family didn’t earn enough, you got a ticket to say you were entitled to FREE MEALS.

It was great!

There was food for all, in every school, and it was hearty and healthy.  No burgers and chips back then, it was all Shepherds’ Pie and peas gfollowed by sponge and custard, and a second helping if you were lucky.

But it did have a down side that only really struck me again today after reading Coley’s article.

Them and Us

At lunch time, it was totally clear to everyone who was who in the poverty pecking order; I remember my best friend’s true mortification every day as she handed her free meals lunch ticket over in front of the whole waiting queue and all of the seated kids in order to get her meal.

They could not have embarrassed her more, short of stamping her on the forehead with POOR.

The Mystical Lunch Boxes

And even then it had other complications.  Not everyone took advantage of school meals.  I remember those children that brought packed lunches.  Cold food all packaged nicely in a lunch box and brought in each day.  I had no idea why they had those.  Why would you have cold food when hot food was on offer?  It was a mystery to me, completely, but I did recognise that it was those kids that bused down that brought packed lunches, not us that bused up.    And we sat in separate spaces – hot meals in one area, lunch boxes in another.

The divide was very clear.

So, I knew I was poorish because “the posh kids” ate cold food from a box.  But I knew I wasn’t as poor as the ticket kids.  They were very poor – the ticket told us that.

In short, at lunch times, my place in society’s pecking order was laid bare.

How it feels to be ‘othered’

As Coley Tangerina  says “Let me tell you something about being part of a poor minority in a wealthy private or “well zoned” public school – if your classmates can’t tell your poor because of the weird shit you wear to school, they will tell when you’re asking for food in the mornings.”

Despite the passing of time and the change in my circumstances, I can feel my cheeks reddening even now remembering how I felt as I  realised that the kids from my area were different to those that bused down.  That I was different.

Was it even worse to be in the top stream with the kids with the proper uniforms?  None of them wore uniforms that were never quite the right shades of blue, bought from the market or made by mum.    I don’t know if it was worse than handing your food chit over every day, but it was certainly embarrassing enough to put me off uniforms for life.

These small thing tell a child that they are different to their classmates,  and that those differences are beyond their control.

This is what it is like when a child is in a school where only some kids opt into the food programmes.  Them and us.

What a rotten way for any child to feel.

There’s no easy answer, but the discussion surely cannot be over with this Weetbix opt-in half-cocked solution, can it?


Further reading:

Do it properly: Extend free food at school by Colin Espiner

Feed the Kids  A Fact Sheet on the Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes in Schools) Amendment Bill

Mana party ridicules govt food in schools policy – Radio NZ

About Save Our Schools NZ

"One needs to be slow to form convictions, but once formed they must be defended against the heaviest odds." Gandhi


5 thoughts on “On those mystical children with packed lunches (Food in schools)

  1. The Children’s Food Trust has done some really wonderful things in and out of schools in the UK to try and get healthy meals in schools for everyone.

    Also there are some different sites around the place that show shots of school lunches from different countries – always interesting.


    Posted by mpledger | June 4, 2013, 12:24 pm
  2. I’ve taught in a few UK schools and we never had a ticket system so I think that has possibly changed, thank goodness! Places I worked usually had a system where a ‘dinner register’ was done with the attendance register / roll as some kids seemed to swap between having packed lunches and hot dinners every now and then (perhaps if they had opted for packed lunches but hadn’t brought / forgot one that day /only had them when they stayed with one parent etc). They would answer with dinners or packed lunch. If kids were sticking to either hot dinners or lunches then there was no need to call the second roll – just fill it in afterwards marking any absences. The kitchen used it to work out numbers for dinner each day. I would send any money handed in to the office with the roll, but wouldn’t specifically ask for any dinner money. Out of the families who paid for hot dinners, most handed it in directly to the office at the beginning of the week / half-term which was best. The office would also invoice for any unpaid dinner money or one-off meals. They also refunded money for absences, but I think this was done by subtracting from the next week etc. On the roll, we had to mark F for those who had free school dinners, P for packed lunches etc., but as far as I know, the kids were never aware of who paid and who didn’t. I’m sure it would all be done far more efficiently on a computer system today! Personally, I didn’t notice an obvious difference in lunch choices between poorer and more affluent families. Families where both parents worked often seemed to opt for school dinners because of time constraints. Some parents said their kids ate packed lunches because they were fussy eaters and didn’t like the dinners. Although generally, those who were entitled to free school dinners ordered them. The school dinners were usually the most popular option but it varied from school to school and the quality of the meals. One classroom I worked in was next door to the kitchen and we could smell the food cooking all morning – the kids nearly all ordered hot dinners!


    Posted by Jo | June 4, 2013, 1:46 pm
    • Wow, a lot of that brought back memories, thank you for recalling it so well for us.

      I’m 46 and, thinking hard, I can’t recall any tickets at primary school, and what you describe fits with what seemed to happen there. I do remember peeking in the register to see who had an F by their name a few times…. but I can’t recall why. Everyone at that school was working class and many were quite hard up but we didn’t really seem to know or care.

      Secondary school was between 1979 and 1984 and was quite different. The packed lunch/hot meal division was quite stark at my school, though. I have a snapshot image in my head of the dining room even now. I will go canvass school friends and ask them what they recall. I wonder if anyone has photos….

      Watch this space, Dianne


      Posted by Dianne - SaveOurSchoolsNZ | June 4, 2013, 2:06 pm
  3. Many decades ago we enjoyed hot school meals until one day I was offered quiche. The dinner lady said eat it up, I said it will make me sick, the dinner lady insisted, I ate it up, I was sick…

    After that we mostly had lunch boxes – sometimes with cold drinks in a foam flask, sometimes soups. For a while at primary school my dad would drive to the school in his lunchtime, drive us home and we all (five kids two parents) would sit down to lunch (we called it dinner) cooked by mum. I couldn’t refuse anything served up by mum, even liver with tube in it.

    Nowadays I hear that older children have plastic cards that are loaded with credit by parents online – unless they forget – so bullies can’t extort lunch money from other children. I’m sure bullies will find something else to amuse themselves and that is another whole topic.

    Thanks for bringing back memories as you muse on these issues Dianne!


    Posted by Glen Forde | June 4, 2013, 8:33 pm

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