Booze, fags and turkey twizzlers

On October 1, it became illegal for under-18s to buy tobacco. James Turley comments

On October 1, it became illegal for under-18s to buy tobacco.

In an apparently unrelated matter, the next day, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) reported a decrease in uptake of school meals, in spite of (or due to?) new regulations designed to increase their nutritional value. The Guardian reported that "in 19 of the 27 schools [surveyed by Ofsted] the number of pupils opting for school lunches had dropped significantly since the healthy menus were planned. Local reductions ranged from 9% to a 25% drop in the number of pupils eating school meals".

The findings, on one level, make depressing reading. There can be no doubt that the quality of school meals has always been infamously dire, even before the most recent neoliberal onslaughts on schools. Now, provision of meals is farmed out to the lowest bidder, and companies such as Scolarest have made a mint from throwing cheap fried food at children - while clamping down on working conditions.

It was this scenario that TV chef Jamie Oliver encountered while attempting to introduce the children of Kidbrooke School in Greenwich to the delights of organic salads. The resultant TV series, Jamie's school dinners, was a runaway success, and mobilised a large section of public opinion that triggered the new health regulations.

So what can have gone wrong? A key problem is that the audience of School dinners was overwhelmingly suburban and middle class - The Guardian's TV critic, Charlie Brooker, in an idiosyncratically confrontational manner, described it as "a piece of entertainment laser-targeted at snobby plasma-screen dickwits whose Smeg fridges were already bursting with organic produce in the first place". The tenor of the whole phenomenon was highly sanctimonious, and redolent of the austere days of Victorian philanthropy. The effect of the show on those not evangelising for it found itself neatly exemplified when, despite the specific demonisation they received at the hands of Oliver, sales of Bernard Matthews' sinister turkey twizzlers soared immediately by 32%.

So it is not at all surprising to read that schools have failed "in 'marketing' the new menus to children and their parents" - in other words, the great flurry of enthusiasm over the issue passed them by completely. More seriously, the Jamie-Oliverisation of school meals has produced a complementary increase in prices. This is all still left in the hands of schools themselves, and the private companies to whom they often farm out the canteens, so the new meals are not being subsidised in any meaningful way.

From the perspective of the recipients/victims of all this bourgeois goodwill, there are other considerations. The first issue is that turkey twizzlers are not actually disgusting to many people - due to the unpromising raw materials of reformed turkey and pork fat, Bernard Matthews necessarily must load them up with all manner of seasoning and flavourings. Many people do find them physically repulsive, but I would argue that this is often an ideologically conditioned response, generally stemming from current middle class obsessions with eating only 'natural', 'organic' food.

So a school student has a choice between this cheap, pleasantly flavoured, filling dish and a salad which will be more expensive, unappetisingly dressed or seasoned (can anyone really imagine the appearance of extra-virgin olive oil in inner-city canteens?) and less substantial. Suddenly, children's preference for fish fingers - even though, as the Ofsted report makes clear, they often "fully understand why they should eat salads, fruit and healthy carbs" - is less baffling.

What are the solutions offered by the British state to these "teething troubles"? Schools should "challenge" pupils who snack on the way to school in lieu of a full breakfast; schools should "convince" parents to offer better packed lunches; pupils should be more "involved" in menu design. It is not difficult to spot that the latter suggestion is the one most likely to founder - almost every policy New Labour has directed at working class youth has been against involving them in anything much apart from prison sentences and, should this slip through somehow, it is difficult to imagine schools (run essentially on quasi-military discipline, relying on their ability to regiment pupils completely, down to the length of the school tie, and hamstrung by budget limitations) suddenly finding much enthusiasm for the genuine voice of students in their affairs.

As for the other Ofsted suggestions, they fairly obviously serve as a justification for even further regimentation of daily life. There is an obvious dialectic at work here - there are public health issues around the lifestyle of the young, and some are of importance for British capitalism. It requires a reasonably healthy workforce, and does not want to pay months of sick leave for furred up arteries and triple bypasses. However, capitalism produces the very conditions whereby the young smoke, eat fried food and binge-drink in a self-obliterative manner. It is simply impossible for the state, given the terms of this contradiction, to tackle the problem at root - hence the only solution can be ever further restrictions and more social discipline.

Such is the background to, and the truth of, the fresh furore over school meals, along with the raising of the smoking age and the proposed restrictions on the purchase of alcohol by under-21s - the total inability of capitalism even to solve many of the 'minor', peripheral problems it necessarily throws up.

The tobacco question is worth returning to, simply to illustrate the plain irrationality of these measures. Before October 1, the typical smoker already took up the habit under-age. Around 20% of 15-year-olds smoke regularly.5  It has certainly not been difficult historically for young smokers to procure tobacco products. Raising the smoking age, then, is self-evidently preposterous. Nevertheless, there is nothing else that can be done (except, of course, harsher penalties and other such repressive measures), and so they do it anyway.

A truly democratic, communist solution to the school dinner issue would not be unlike the final Ofsted proposal - but it is clear that, if school students are to be able to take real control of their school food, it can only be as part of the root-and-branch reconstruction of the education system as such, down to its most basic mission of the 'bog standard' comprehensive school (currently to provide pliable, semi-skilled workers functional in all disciplines required of a Tesco cashier).

It is clear, furthermore, that this will only be possible - as will the end of more baldly self-destructive practices such as binge-drinking and smoking - within the context of the renewal of working class organisation. Students at all levels can play their part in making this urgent necessity a real possibility.