East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food

School dinners…

Jamie Oliver’s Channel 4 series Jamie’s School Dinners in 2005 caused quite a stir in revealing the extent of the ‘junk food’ served in schools – and recent research has suggested that healthier school meals have helped not only to improve pupils academic performance but to reduce the number of days they are absent from school (The Guardian, 29 March 2010). 

(East Midlands Oral History Archive)

The history of school meals is interesting in itself. Some were provided by charities in the 19th century, but generally speaking they originated in the early 20th century when welfare reforms were introduced to improve the health of mothers and children. These were much influenced by the South African (Boer) War of 1899 – 1902, when two thirds of the adult males who volunteered for service in the military were found to be medically unfit. Many of them had diseases related to inadequate nutrition, and the reasons for their poor condition were investigated after the war by a Committee on Physical Deterioration which reported in 1904.

Its main recommendations were taken up by the Liberal government elected in 1906. These included the notification of all births to midwives, so they could check on the physical condition of the babies and ensure that mothers had appropriate advice about childcare; free medical inspections of schoolchildren, introduced in 1907, to identify and treat any problems at an early stage; and powers for local authorities to provide school meals for the children of poor families. This was not compulsory until the Education Act of 1944, but many local authorities in urban areas did take advantage of it. The meals were either free or – more usually - at a cost based on that of the ingredients. Nationally, 1.6 million meals were being provided in 1945, but only 14% of them were free. 

When I was at the Good Food Fair at Belgrave Hall Museum last month I asked some of the people there about their own school dinners. As you might imagine, some loved them while others had vivid memories of the things they detested, including lemon curd sandwiches (‘ugh!), watery mince and cabbage, soggy carrots, and tinned spaghetti (‘vile’). Milk puddings were also unpopular with some: ’hated them – still do!, and ‘the frog spawn tapioca was abominable!’. Another remembered the fatty roast lamb – ‘but you had to eat everything on your plate, however long it took’.

On the other hand, someone ‘loved the mutton and onion sauce’, another liked the hot cooked beetroot, one ‘used to eat everybody else’s cabbage’, and another just ‘ate up all the seconds’! Also among the favourites were curried eggs, bread pudding (‘wonderful!’), ’a super chocolate tart – I loved it’, and Gipsy Tart, made with a filling of condensed milk and dark brown sugar in a pastry case. There is a recipe for this at http://www.traditionalenglishpuddings.co.uk/g2gypsytart.html - but the same person also remembered having chips and burgers once a term only as a special treat! Other favourite puddings were butterscotch blancmange (‘we never had that at home’), ’big biscuits’, and chocolate pudding with chocolate custard (‘heavenly. Everyone got to choose what we ate on their birthday, so we had this quite often!’   

If you’d like to know more about the history of school dinners, see ‘Food for thought: child nutrition, the school dinner and the food industry’ (2003) by Derek Gillard at http://www.educationengland.org.uk/articles/22food.html. You can also catch up with Jamie’s School Dinners at http://www.jamieoliver.com/school-dinners, including ideas for healthy packed lunches.




    Angela Cutting November 22nd, 2010 at 10:34 am

    I actually like lemon curd sandwiches although I haven’t had one for years! At my school there were a few things I liked, but lots I definitely did not! This includes bread and butter pudding which I still loathe to this day. Stew was known to us all as ‘the three Gs’ – grit, gristle and gravy. I recall one day we were served pilchard salad and we all got half a pilchard each.


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A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.