I was at a function in our restaurant some weeks ago where I was invited to give a talk about the restaurant, how we source ingredients and my general thoughts about food. I got on my usual soapbox bemoaning the lack of cooking lessons in school and got some sympathetic nods from the 20 or so people there. However, inviting questions as I finished, a senior educationalist asked me what, with so much pressure on teachers to fulfil the requirements of the national curriculum, I thought should be dropped from the school curriculum to make way for cooking lessons. This caught me a little bit by surprise and I had to admit that I didn’t know; I’m not in the business of education.
But I am in the business of food and I was recently listening to an article on the BBC’s Today programme on Radio Four about some research showing that children in Everton on Merseyside were not eating properly and were suffering from malnutrition. The doctor being interviewed concluded that the reason was down to money being tight and there being a general lack of knowledge within parents about how to provide a good meal for their children at the right price. He suggested that the previously proposed traffic light system on foods might go some way to helping point parents in the right direction but didn’t sound convinced. And neither should he. For putting little coloured discs on processed food to inform purchasers whether a food’s high or low in salt, sugar or fat is hardly going to change the buying habits of someone who’s not been tutored in the basics. And it should appal all of us that there are people putting other things first before the physical wellbeing of their children. There’s absolutely no excuse for underfeeding or badly feeding our children – apart from basic ignorance.
The article wasn’t about a third world country – although I did live in Liverpool for five years and it sometimes made me wonder. This was Everton which is in one of the richest countries in the world with one of the best social systems in the world, where all the young adults now having children have gone to school within the last ten or fifteen years but now come out the other side unable to provide properly for those children. Times may be harder than they were but most people have, one way or another, a roof over their heads, clothes to wear and utility services supplied to their house. They may not be deliriously happy but they are alive. However, they have no idea how to spend very little money on cooking at home and feeding themselves and their children properly.
Now you could argue that it’s the job of parents to teach their children how to cook and, in an ideal society, you’d be right. But the parents of these current young parents went to school within the last thirty years and they weren’t taught to cook either. So if we’re expecting youngsters to be taught to cook by their parents we’re on a hiding to nothing. So, it’s got to be down to the schools and if it means at the expense of geography or history or media studies, well it really doesn’t seem to matter. Because what is more fundamental? Without food, without feeding ourselves properly, without being healthy and strong and all those things we know help us get through life, life’s quality is reduced anyway and no amount of the present national curriculum is going to extend our life or contribute to its quality as much as feeding ourselves properly could.
There are cleverer people than I who can decide what should be dropped from the curriculum to make way for educating our young about food. What I do know is that it’s a decision that desperately needs taking if we want to have some positive effect on a bad diet resulting in malnutrition, rickets (now making a comeback) and, at the other end of the scale, obesity. Within five years of starting to teach our current crop of teenagers how to feed themselves and their families well and healthily, on much less than their parents are currently spending on ready meals and takeaways, we could have changed society.
It’s not poverty making these children suffer; it’s a lack of education and we should be ashamed.