Sunday, 29 June 2014

The dilemma of free school meals

I'm not in agreement with all the new policies and developments that have occurred in education since Michael Gove's regime took over. However the announcement that all children in Key Stage 1 (that's 4 - 6 year olds) will be entitled to a free school meal from September is a fantastic development.

There's always been concern that some children don't eat properly and we often hear figures about hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty. I'm not going to go into the whys and wherefores of all that here or start trotting out social commentary along the lines of "Oh, they can't afford to feed their children, but they can still afford drink/ fags/ drugs". That's another debate entirely. Let's just say it can only be good for all children.

It's good for parents, whether in poverty or not. Not only does it save money but also time for all. I am sure time starved parents will be glad of having one less packed lunch in the morning. However - despite this welcome new policy, there is a flaw in the plan - for me anyway. I haven't seen this issue raised anywhere else, but I am sure it is one that many parents are going to be struggling with come September.

In the case of our school there is no canteen, so they all take packed lunches. This has not been a problem for us. Ollie takes his lunch and eats it every day. But I am quite relieved that he will be in Year 3 in September, and therefore not entitled to these free meals. Because if he was, it would not even be an option.

As you'll know if you read regularly, Ollie has Asperger's which means he is very regimented in certain areas of his life. This includes food. Since he was weaned our lives have been a constant trade off between getting him to eat anything at all, and encouraging him to eat healthy options. It has been a long and difficult battle and I have managed to compromise with him to the extent that he does at least eat an averagely healthy diet. It has not been easy. Many healthy options are rejected out of hand but he does at least eat a few good things so I make sure they are on offer as much as possible e.g. bananas and pineapple.

But he is a creature of habit. He likes meat, cheese and such like but not in a sandwich. The only type of sandwich he will entertain is a marmite one. So every day his lunchbox is exactly the same. He takes a marmite sandwich, a cereal bar, a packet of fruit flakes and a carton of orange juice. Plus a banana for break time. It's not the ideal lunch - there's plenty of sugar in there but at least he eats it. And it could be a lot worse.

We've just had the menus through for the packed lunches which are on offer each day and there's plenty of options on there - a good mix of possible lunches each day. However, as I looked through that's when the relief that Ollie won't be having these lunches washed over me.

Unfortunately, Jamie, who is not autistic in any way has picked up a number of personality traits from Ollie, when it suits him, and this includes fussiness over food. So we are going to face the same problem with him as we would have had with Ollie. Here's the menu choices for the first 3 days of next term:


So, basically you have to pick one of each of the three choices. A good healthy selection there, don't you think? I do. But unfortunately, I can tell you exactly how Jamie would respond to each one.

Wednesday - The cheese and ham roll will probably be OK, though he'll insist on picking it apart. Crunchy veg sticks and tomatoes? No chance. Option 2 is a total non-starter. From option 3 he'd probably eat the crunchy bread sticks but he hates eggs (unlike Ollie who actually does eat them).

Thursday: Options 1 and 3 are total non-runners. That leaves the cheese and pickle roll assuming he doesn't turn his nose up at the pickle.

Friday: The cheese salad is probably the only viable option though knowing him he'll pick out the cheese and leave the rest.

I've just gone over the menu choices and it's met with the predictable responses "No", "Don't like that", "Don't want that" etc.

So as you see, I face somewhat of a dilemma. We can of course send in our own lunches which means he can have what he wants, but what's the best option? Send his own lunch at our time/ expense knowing it is not as healthy as what the school is providing and the easy option. Or order the lunch and let the teachers at school deal with the inevitable tantrums and upset it will cause - leaving him unhappy and hungry. It's very difficult to know what approach to take.

At the moment I am thinking of trialling the lunches and seeing how it goes. We can always switch to sending in his own lunch if is a nightmare.

What would you do? I am sure there are thousands of parents out there mulling over the same problem. NB: I'm not looking for any self-righteous comments here about "they should get what they're given" or accusing them of being "spoilt". It's quite difficult to get across to anyone who has not been the parent of a fussy child how difficult our daily trials and tribulations are.


Jason's new novel, "The Time Bubble", set in a small market town near Oxford, is available now from Amazon - click here:

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