I’m writing this post while listening to this week’s podcast of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. The episode is about nine year-old food writer Martha Payne, whose blog about the dinners served at her school became the cause of a strange and troubling controversy a month ago.
Martha uses her blog, NeverSeconds, to review the food she eats at school. As Jay Rayner points out, although she may criticise – rightly – much of which the school provides for lunch, NeverSeconds is not intended as a kind of school dinners hatchet job. She rates her meals according to a Food-o-Meter, taking into account how healthy, but also how delicious, they are.
As her blog has grown in popularity, children from all over the world have contributed photographs and reviews, and it’s partly this which makes Never Seconds so wonderful: it’s a space in which children can discuss and debate food.
NeverSeconds came to wider – global – notice when the Argyll and Bute Council tried to shut it down in June, after the Daily Record published an article featuring Martha cooking with the chef Nick Nairn, headlined ‘Time to fire the dinner ladies.’ The blog’s honest descriptions and pictures of some of the food served to schoolchildren can’t have pleased councillors either.
As Private Eye (no. 1317) makes the point, the council’s bizarre – and futile – attempts to silence a blog probably had as much to do with internal politicking and minor corruption as anything else, but the furore which erupted after the ban also said a great deal about attitudes towards food and children.
What is really scandalous about the blog is that it reveals how bad – how unhealthy, how heavily processed – school meals can be. When Jamie Oliver launched a campaign in 2005 to improve the quality of school dinners in the UK, his most shocking revelations were not, I think, that children were being fed Turkey Twizzlers and chips for lunch, but, rather, that the British government is willing to spend so little on what children eat at school. Last year, the state spent an average of 67p per primary school pupil per meal, per day. This rose to 88p for those in high school.
Michael Gove has recently announced another inquiry into the quality of school meals – this time headed up by the altogether posher-than-Jamie Henry Dimbleby, the founder of the Leon chain of restaurants, who also seems to spend the odd holiday with the Education Secretary in Marrakech. It’s a tough life.
But as Sheila Dillon comments during this episode of the Food Programme:
Martha Payne, a nine year-old who seems to understand better than many adults, that dinner ladies, or even individual school kitchens, are not the source of the school dinner problem. It has far deeper roots.
When did it become acceptable to serve schoolchildren junk food for lunch? The way we feed children tells us a great deal about how we conceptualise childhood. Or, put another way, what we define as ‘children’s food’ says as much about our attitudes towards food as it does about children.
The idea that children should be fed separately to adults has a relatively long pedigree. The Victorians argued that children – and women – should be fed bland, carbohydrate-heavy meals to prevent their delicate digestive systems from being exerted. Fruit, meat, spices, and fresh vegetables should be eaten only in strict moderation.
There is, of course, a disconnect between what experts – medical professionals, childrearing specialists – recommend, and what people actually eat. In the late nineteenth-century Cape Colony, for instance, the pupils at an elite girls’ school near Cape Town were fed a diet rich in red meat and fresh fruit and vegetables.
But the belief that children’s bodies are delicate and potentially vulnerable to disruption was an indicator of shifts in thinking about childhood during the mid and late nineteenth century. The notion that children need to be protected – from work, hunger, poverty, and exploitation and abuse from adults – emerged at around the same time. As children were to be shielded from potential danger, so they were to eat food which, it was believed, was ideally suited to digestive systems more susceptible to upset and illness than those of adults.
But as scientists became interested in the relationship between food and health – in nutrition, in other words – towards the end of the 1800s, paediatricians, demographers, and others concerned about high rates of child mortality during the early twentieth century began to look more closely at what children were being fed. For instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, scientists in Britain and the United States drew a connection between the consumption of unhealthy or diseased food – particularly rotten milk – and high rates of diarrhoea, then almost always fatal, among children in these countries.
They were also interested in what should constitute a healthy diet for a child. As childhood became increasingly medicalised in the early twentieth century – as pregnancy, infancy, and childhood became seen as periods of development which should be overseen and monitored by medical professionals – so children’s diets became the purview of doctors as well. As RJ Blackman, the Honorary Surgeon to the Viceroy of India (no, me neither), wrote in 1925:
Food, though it is no panacea for the multitudinous ills of mankind, can do much, both to make or mar the human body. This is particularly so with the young growing child. All the material from which his body is developed has to come from the food he eats. Seeing that he doubles or trebles his weight in the first year of life, and increases it twenty-fold by the time he reaches adult stature, it will be seen that food has much to accomplish. Naturally, if the food be poor, the growth and physique will be poor; and if good, the results will be good.
Informed by recent research into dietetics, doctors advised parents to feed their children varied diets which included as much fresh, vitamin-containing produce as possible. In a popular guide to feeding young children, The Nursery Cook Book (1929), the former nurse Mrs K. Jameson noted:
Many years ago, I knew a child who was taken ill at the age of eight years, and it was thought that one of her lungs was affected. She was taken to a children’s specialist in London. He could find nothing radically wrong, but wrote out a diet sheet. By following this…the child became well in a month or two. This shows how greatly the health is influenced by diet.
This diet, she believed, should be designed along scientific principles:
Since starting to write this book I have come across an excellent book on vitamins called ‘Food and Health’ (Professor Plimmer), and I have found it very helpful. I have endeavoured to arrange the meals to contain the necessary vitamins, as shown in the diagram of ‘A Square Meal’ at the beginning of the book.
Indeed, she went on to explain that children who were properly fed would never need medicine.
In 1925, advising mothers on how to wean their babies in the periodical Child Welfare, Dr J. Alexander Mitchell, the Secretary for Public Health in the Union of South Africa, counselled against boiling foodstuffs for too long as it ‘destroys most of the vitamins.’ He argued that children’s diets ‘should include a good proportion of proteins or fleshy foods and fats’, as well as plenty of fruit, fresh vegetables, milk, and ‘porridge…eggs, meat, juice, soups’.
What is so striking about the diets described by Mitchell, Jameson, and others is how similar they were to what adults would have eaten. Children were to eat the same as their parents, but in smaller quantities and in different proportions. For example, some doctors counselled again children being allowed coffee, while others believed that they should limit their intake of rich foods.
So what is the origin of the idea that children should be cajoled into eating healthily by making food ‘fun’? Mrs Jameson’s recipes might have cute names – she calls a baked apple ‘Mr Brownie with his coat on’ – but they’re the same food as would be served to adults. Now, our idea of ‘children’s food’ differs from that of the 1920s and 1930s. When we think of children’s food, we imagine sweets, soft white sandwich bread, pizza, hotdogs, and brightly coloured and oddly shaped foodstuffs designed to appeal to children.
As Steven Mintz argues in his excellent history of American childhood, Huck’s Raft (2004), the 1950s and 1960s were child-oriented decades. Not only were there more children as a result of the post-war baby boom, but with the growing prosperity of late twentieth-century America, more money was spent on children than ever before. Families tended to be smaller, and increasing pocket money transformed children into mini-consumers.
Children either bought, or had their parents buy for them, a range of consumer goods aimed at them: from clothes and toys, to ‘child-oriented convenience foods… – “Sugar Frosted Flakes (introduced in 1951), Sugar Smacks (in 1953), Tater Tots (in 1958), and Jiffy Pop, the stovetop popcorn (also in 1958).’
The same period witnessed a shift in attitudes towards childrearing. Families became increasingly child-centred, with meals and routines designed around the needs of children, rather than parents. In many ways, this was a reaction against the orthodoxies of the pre-War period, which tended to emphasise raising children to be obedient, well-behaved, and self-disciplined.
So the definition of children’s food changed again. For the parents of Baby Boomers, food was made to be appealing to children. Fussiness was to be accommodated and negotiated, rather than ignored. And children’s desire for food products advertised on television was to be indulged.
I am exaggerating to make a point – in the US and the UK children during the 1960s and 1970s certainly ate less junk than they do now, and this new understanding of children’s food emerged in different ways and at different times in other parts of the world – but this change represented a bonanza for the burgeoning food industry. Although the industry’s attempts to advertise to children are coming under greater scrutiny and regulation (and rightly so), it does have a vested interest in encouraging children and their parents to believe that that is what constitutes good food for children.
I think that it’s partly this shift in thinking about children’s relationship with food – that they should eat only that which they find appealing, and that children will only eat food which is ‘fun’, brightly coloured, oddly shaped, and not particularly tasty – that allowed for the tolerance of such poor school food for so long in Britain.
Martha’s blog is a powerful corrective to this: she, her classmates, and contributors all have strong opinions about what they eat, and they like a huge variety of food – some of it sweets, but most of it is pretty healthy. The irony is that in – apparently – pandering to what children are supposed to like, politicians and policy makers seem to find listening to what a child has to say, fairly difficult. If we’re to persuade children to eat well, then not only should we encourage them to talk and to think about food, but we need to listen to what they have to say about it.
Linda Bryder, A Voice for Mothers: The Plunket Society and Infant Welfare, 1907-2000 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003).
Deborah Dwork, War is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England 1898-1918 (London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987).
Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
A Sporting Chance
My expectations of the London Olympics’ opening ceremony were so low that, I suppose, I would have been impressed if it had featured Boris as Boudicca, driving a chariot over the prostate figures of the Locog committee. (Actually, now that I think about it, that would have been fairly entertaining.)
Appalled by the organising committee’s slavishly sycophantic attitude towards its sponsors and their ‘rights’ – which caused them to ban home knitted cushions from being distributed to the Olympic athletes, and to require shops and restaurants to remove Olympic-themed decorations and products – as well the rule that online articles and blog posts may not link to the official 2012 site if they’re critical of the games, the decision to make the official entrance of the Olympic site a shopping mall, and the creation of special lanes for VIP traffic, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the London Olympics.
But watching the opening ceremony last night, I was reduced to a pile of NHS-adoring, Tim Berners-Lee worshipping, British children’s literature-loving goo. Although a reference to the British Empire – other than the arrival of the Windrush – would have been nice, I think that Danny Boyle’s narrative of British history which emphasised the nation’s industrial heritage, its protest and trade union movements, and its pop culture, was fantastic.
As some commentators have noted, this was the opposite of the kind of kings-and-queens-and-great-men history curriculum which Michael Gove wishes schools would teach. Oh and the parachuting Queen and Daniel Craig were pretty damn amazing too.
There was even a fleeting, joking reference to the dire quality of British food during the third part of the ceremony. There was something both apt, but also deeply ironic about this. On the one hand, there has been extensive coverage of Locog’s ludicrous decision to allow manufacturers of junk food – Coke, Cadbury’s, McDonald’s – not only to be official sponsors of a sporting event, but to provide much of the catering. (McDonald’s even tried to ban other suppliers from selling chips on the Olympic site.)
But, on the other, Britain’s food scene has never been in better shape. It has excellent restaurants – and not only at the top end of the scale – and thriving and wonderful farmers’ markets and street food.
It’s this which makes the decision not to open up the catering of the event to London’s food trucks, restaurants, and caterers so tragic. It is true that meals for the athletes and officials staying in the Village have been locally sourced and made from ethically-produced ingredients, and this is really great. But why the rules and regulations which actually make it more difficult for fans and spectators to buy – or bring their own – healthy food?
Of course, the athletes themselves will all be eating carefully calibrated, optimally nutritious food. There’s been a lot of coverage of the difficulties of catering for so many people who eat such a variety of different things. The idea that athletes’ performance is enhanced by what they consume – supplements, food, and drugs (unfortunately) – has become commonplace.
Even my local gym’s café – an outpost of the Kauai health food chain – serves meals which are, apparently, suited for physically active people. I’ve never tried them, partly because the thought of me as an athlete is so utterly nuts. (I’m an enthusiastic, yet deeply appalling, swimmer.)
The notion that food and performance are linked in some way, has a long pedigree. In Ancient Greece, where diets were largely vegetarian, but supplemented occasionally with (usually goat) meat, evidence suggests that athletes at the early Olympics consumed more meat than usual to improve their performance. Ann C. Grandjean explains:
Eating more protein – although perhaps not quite as much as reported by Milo of Croton’s fans – helps to build muscle, and would have given athletes an advantage over other, leaner competitors.
Another ancient dietary supplement seems to have been alcohol. Trainers provided their athletes with alcoholic drinks before and after training – in much the same way that contemporary athletes may consume sports drinks. But some, more recent sportsmen seem to have gone a little overboard, as Grandjean notes:
Drunken, German walker: I salute you and your ability to walk in a straight line after that much beer.
The London Olympic Village is, though, dry. Even its pub only serves soft drinks. With the coming of the modern games – which coincided with the development of sport and exercise science in the early twentieth century – diets became the subject of scientific enquiry. The professionalization of sport – with athletes more reliant on doing well in order to make a living – only served to increase the significance of this research.
One of the first studies on the link between nutrition and the performance of Olympic athletes was conducted at the 1952 games in Helsinki. The scientist E. Jokl (about whom I know nothing – any help gratefully received) demonstrated that those athletes who consumed fewer carbohydrates tended to do worse than those who ate more. Grandjean comments:
As research into athletes’ diets has progressed, so fashions for particular supplements and foods have emerged over the course of the twentieth century. Increasing consumption of protein and carbohydrates has become a common way of improving performance. Whereas during the 1950s and 1960s, athletes simply ate more meat, milk, bread, and pasta, since the 1970s, a growing selection of supplements has allowed sportsmen and –women to add more carefully calibrated and targeted forms of protein and carbohydrates to their diets.
Similarly, vitamin supplements have been part of athletes’ diets since the 1930s. Evidence from athletes competing at the 1972 games in Munich demonstrated widespread use of multivitamins, although now, participants tend to choose more carefully those vitamins which produce specific outcomes.
But this history of shifting ideas around athletes’ diets cannot be understood separately from the altogether more shadowy history of doping – of using illicit means of improving one’s performance. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans used stimulants – ranging from dried figs to animal testes – to suppress fatigue and boost performance.
More recently, some of the first examples of doping during the nineteenth century come from cycling (nice to see that some things don’t change), and, more specifically, from long-distance, week-long bicycle races which depended on cyclists’ reserves of strength and stamina. Richard IG Holt, Ioulietta Erotokritou-Mulligan, and Peter H. Sönksen explain:
Before the introduction of doping regulations, the use of performance enhancing drugs was rife at the modern Olympics:
But regulation – the first anti-drugs tests were undertaken at the 1968 Mexico games – didn’t stop athletes from doping – the practice simply went underground. The USSR and East Germany allowed their representatives to take performance enhancing drugs, and an investigation undertaken after Ben Johnson was disqualified for doping at the Seoul games revealed that at least half of the athletes who competed at the 1988 Olympics had taken anabolic steroids. In 1996, some athletes called the summer Olympics in Atlanta the ‘Growth Hormone Games’ and the 2000 Olympics were dubbed the ‘Dirty Games’ after the disqualification of Marion Jones for doping.
At the heart of the issue of doping and the use of supplements, is distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate means of enhancing performance. The idea that taking drugs to make athletes run, swim, or cycle faster, or jump further and higher, is unfair, is a relatively recent one. It’s worth noting that the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is responsible for establishing and maintaining standards for anti-doping work, was formed only in 1999.
What makes anabolic steroids different from consuming high doses of protein, amino acids, or vitamins? Why, indeed, was Caster Semenya deemed to have an unfair advantage at the 2009 IAAF World Championships, but the blade-running Oscar Pistorius is not?
I’m really pleased that both Semenya and Pistorius are participating in the 2012 games – I’m immensely proud that Semenya carried South Africa’s flag into the Olympic stadium – but their experiences, as well as the closely intertwined histories of food supplements and doping in sport, demonstrate that the idea of an ‘unfair advantage’ is a fairly nebulous one.
Elizabeth A. Applegate and Louis E. Grivetti, ‘Search for the Competitive Edge: A History of Dietary Fads and Supplements,’ The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 127, no. 5 (2007), pp. 869S-873S.
Ann C. Grandjean, ‘Diets of Elite Athletes: Has the Discipline of Sports Nutrition Made an Impact?’ The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 127, no. 5 (2007), pp. 874S-877S.
Richard IG Holt, Ioulietta Erotokritou-Mulligan, and Peter H. Sönksen, ‘The History of Doping and Growth Hormone Abuse in Sport,’ Growth Hormone & IGF Research, vol. 19 (2009), pp. 320-326.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.