Dining hall revolution

School dinners have recently hit the headlines in a flurry of controversy, amongst widespread claims that the standard of food preparation in schools has been sliding since those pre-Thatcher halcyon days. On the left, such claims are characteristic of the tendency to hark back cheerfully to a golden age of free milk and social democracy in order to provide a point of reference for public services and a model for them now. In reality, school dinner provision was systematically undermined, with large parts of it dismantled altogether, not only by Tory initiatives but also by Labour efforts. In 1978, for example, the Callaghan government sought to halve the £380 million cost of meals through a reduction in quality and adulterated convenience foods. There is, however, some basis for stating that school dinners at least had some minimum nutritional value in the past. For example, legislation enacted in 1940 laid down that they must provide 40% of daily protein and 33% of daily energy and be available to every child who required them. By 1947, the government was covering 100% of the cost. Since 'milk-snatching' Margaret Thatcher in 1971, however, such standards have been eroded with the withdrawal of government subsidy and the gradual replacement of 'fresh' food with denatured processed alternatives. It is not just primary school children who suffer: an article in The Guardian described the dire state of food in Britain's private nurseries. One parent was horrified to discover that her child was fed Wotsits as an afternoon snack: "I was flabbergasted," she said. "I don't give them to my child at home and I don't expect him to be served them at school" (April 6). Nursery school children are in a stage of rapid growth, not only in terms of physical and mental development, but also in the social and cultural sense. To serve homogenised crap to working class toddlers is to set them up for a life of dietary backwardness and low expectations. To avoid this, we say meals should be nutritionally balanced and diverse in cultural origin; nowhere is this more important that in primary schools and nurseries, where social personality develops apace and conservative habits that are picked up tend to stick. School dinners, therefore, have become a political hot potato. Parental concern over the state of school cooking has increased - with a little help from Jamie Oliver, whose 'Feed me better' campaign implores the discerning pupil to "start a revolution in your dining hall". The left should take note: Jamie is posing as the Lenin of food. His recent TV programme, School dinners, is the spearhead of a campaign to increase the paltry sums the government allocates for expenditure on school meals; in the worst instance, 37p per child, per day, plus labour. Oliver recommends a marginally less pathetic 50p, but this still falls short of the minimum 65p proposed to meet all a child's nutritional requirements. By way of a response, the government proposed, in typical New Labour lingo, the introduction a "tougher minimum standard" for local authorities, but has so far refrained from quantifying such a standard, producing the requisite cash to ensure it is achieved or coming up with any structural alterations - vocational qualifications for catering staff, purchasing guidelines, etc - to meet it. Most importantly, the government has failed to provide, in the words of Peter Melchett of the Soil Association, a "baseline nutritional standard" for school meals. Nonetheless, the commotion generated by Jamie Oliver's TV programme and the reaction he has provoked says a great deal about the power of celebrity culture - not to mention the promotion of a consumer identity that obscures notions of class loyalty and blurs the distinction between exploiter and exploited, disguising this relationship through the promotion of a common concern for commodity quality. A link from Jamie's website, for example, points us to a popular online advocacy film called The Meatrix, an animated short about the barbarism of the meat industry. Quite correctly, the film highlights the horrendous ill-practice that forms the basis of capitalist agriculture: deformation, mutilation, abuse, pollution - essentially all the characteristics of a system which invests purely for profit. An unintentionally hilarious sequence features a faux-Matrix killer robot, tentacles flailing, stamping on cosily depicted family dwellings and replacing them indiscriminately with miserable grey battery farms, in a convenient but unintended visual summation of capitalism's irresistibly ruinous drive towards overproduction and exploitation and the nature of received consumer wisdom that has sprung up in response: "It's you, the consumer," exhorts a cartoon cow, "who has the real power." Such is modern politics, bereft of a proletarian dimension. But the real world is rather different: even in the narrow context of school meal preparation, it will come as no surprise to learn that working class areas have considerably less financial means at their disposal. Rotherham, Redcar, Cleveland, Birmingham and Stockton-on-Tees hit the national low, spending between 37p and 40p per child per meal, whereas the considerably wealthier boroughs of Kensington, Chelsea and Wandsworth rank higher, managing the lofty heights of 65p or even 70p. As communists, we recognise that the working class takes the brunt of the capitalist state's attempt to cut costs, and as such, it is our children who are expected to eat food which is largely dross. We take, therefore, the nutritional and culinary needs of children as our starting point in considering the food they ought to be served. Meals ought to look good, taste good and do you good. Once these requirements are established, the necessary budget can be worked out - the opposite of the penny-pinching of the establishment parties, united as they are around the Thatcherite consensus. Jules Barca