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Eat Your Greens

Long before Jamie Oliver’s crusade, the provision of food in schools aroused passionate debate. John Burnett remembers one hundred years of school meals in Britain.

Writing in the grim days of October 1941, Lord Woolton, the wartime Minister of Food, declared: ‘I want to see elementary school children as well fed as children going to Eton and Harrow. I am determined that we shall organize our food front that at the end of the war … we shall have preserved and even improved the health and physique of the nation.’ Whether Etonians and Harrovians considered themselves well fed during the strict wartime rationing is doubtful, but it was a bold endorsement of the growing sense of social equality that the war was encouraging, and a far cry from the modest intentions of the statutory introduction of school meals in 1906. In that year the Education (Provision of Meals) Act allowed, but did not require, local education authorities to provide meals for children who were ‘unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided for them’: the costs were to be met by existing voluntary bodies, which it was hoped would now redouble their efforts, from parents’ contributions, and as a last resort, from a new local rate which was not to exceed ½d. in the pound. Payment by parents was normally expected ‘unless the Education Authority is satisfied that the parent is unable by reason of circumstances other than his own default’: for such ‘necessitous’ children the food would be free.

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