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Children’s Food

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.

Further Reading

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).

Creative Commons License
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 11.04.2012

Abolish the food industry.

Eight ways Monsanto fails at sustainable agriculture.

The rise and rise of KFC in Africa.

What does sweetness sound like?

Inside the matzo industry.

Jezebel is characteristically sensible about the new Caveman Diet fad.

The banana industry in 1935.

An interview with Colin Tudge.

What is mindful eating?

An interview with Judith Jones, Julia Child’s editor.

Yogurt as a tool for social critique and political action in Greece. (No, really.)

Where the staff at Noma like to eat.

How sound influences how we taste food.

A new fashion for iguana meat?

The hidden messages in menus.

Pizza in a jar.

Werner Herzog on chickens.

How to cook like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Five dinner party menus from the Obama administration.

The war against plastic straws.

How to be a jamon carver.

A Russian food primer.

Statistics on pizza consumption.

The dos and don’ts of doughnuts.

President Obama fires a marshmallow cannon.

A black market for designer ice cubes?

A urine-powered restaurant in Melbourne.

How to make your own doner kebab.

Vegetable fat carving.

These are courtesy of my eagle-eyed Mum:

The Great American Cereal Book.

The vegetable man.

Baking the white sandwich loaf of 1950s America. (Really, if you’re going to read any of these links, make it this one.)

Asian ingredients in Senegalese dishes.

The historic cakes of Spitalfields.

Jeffrey Steingarten visits Japan.

A gallery of chickens.

The amazing Coromoto ice cream shop.

Baked hard-boiled eggs.

The Conflict Kitchen.

White Food

Public service announcement: The National Assembly is due to vote on the Protection of State Information Bill on Tuesday, 22 November. Please wear black to show your opposition to the Bill, and join the Right2Know Campaign’s protests against this Draconian piece of legislation. (If you’d like to know more about the Secrecy Bill, check out this post I wrote for FeministsSA.)

One of my favourite places in London is Exmouth Market. It was about a five-minute walk from my amazing hall of residence in Bloomsbury, and its street food – some of the best in the UK, apparently – made a pleasingly delicious lunch from time to time. Its book shop, Clerkenwell Tales, is also excellent.

I think, though, that Exmouth Market is best known as the sometime home of Brindisa, the Spanish delicatessen which is also based in Borough Market, and Moro, the restaurant which more-or-less introduced the cooking of Spain, North Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean to Britain. Having cooked from the first Moro recipe book, and having read a great deal about its founders, Sam and Sam Clark, I was curious about the restaurant itself, but I never went further than a detailed perusal of its menu: the place was simply far too pricey for my student budget.

Like so many of the young chefs who led the revolution in Britain’s eating habits during the 1990s and early 2000s, and this includes Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the Clarks had worked at the River Cafe. Founded by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, the restaurant was never intended to be more than a canteen for Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the famous architectural firm run by Ruth’s husband, Richard Rogers. But it evolved into something more: into the first restaurant in Britain to emphasise the heavily regionalised and seasonal nature of Italian cuisine. The River Cafe imported Ligurian olive oil, cavolo nero, and Pecorino Romano to replicate the cooking of Italy in London.

It could be terribly precious and seemed to confuse eating ‘authentic’ Italian cuisine with some kind of food-based morality. The River Cafe recipe books exuded the restaurant’s self-righteousness, as Julian Barnes explains:

When the first River Cafe Cook Book came out – the blue one – it drew high praise followed by a certain raillery. Some felt they were having a lifestyle package thrust at them; some felt the emphasis on just this kind of olive oil and just those kinds of lentils was a little discouraging. As James Fenton put it in the Independent at the time: ‘I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for weeks now. I can’t say I’ve actually cooked anything from it. More, what I’m doing is deciding whether I can live up to its exacting standards.’

As many pointed out, the food served by the River Cafe, Moro, and others, is, essentially, peasant food. There is something deeply – and amusingly – ironic about the lefty middle classes (and the River Cafe had a deserved association with the rise of New Labour) paying through the nose to eat bread and cabbage soup, a range of cheap cuts of meat, and polenta.

Polenta is a staple of northern Italy and for all its association with the sophisticated eating of the 1990s, it’s really only cornmeal – or maize– or mielie meal, as we’d call it in South Africa. Partly because of the endless variety of the maize plant, cornmeal comes in both yellow and white and can be ground as finely or as coarsely as tastes demand. In fact, the difference between the yellow, medium-ground cornmeal used to produce polenta or the finer-textured yellow flour for cornbread from the American south, and the fine, white cornmeal favoured for mielie pap in South Africa is minimal.

People’s preferences for yellow or white cornmeal are, then, culturally determined. A recent article published by the magnificent Mail and Guardian explores South Africa’s taste for whiter, finer maize meal:

In the poorest communities a bag of maize meal is often the only way of satisfying a family’s hunger, and the cost factor plays a role too. An 80kg bag of maize meal is about R400: on a 500g portion a person a day, an extended family of 10 people would consume an 80kg bag in about 16 days. The daily total consumption of maize meal in South Africa is about 10 000 tonnes.

But these maize-meal consumers demand a product that is white – stripped of roughage and nutrients – and manufacturers have remodelled their businesses to serve this demand.

South Africa’s best-selling brand of maize meal is White Star, produced by Pioneer Foods. White Star is whiter and finer than other brands. Premier Foods and Tiger Brands, the country’s other two big producers of maize meal, have also invested in technology which produces this whiter maize meal.

In the pursuit of whiteness, the big millers began installing new-generation degerminators about a decade ago. In the grinding process, the degerminator extracts the greyish germ of the maize, which contains oil and other nutrients. The more of the germ extracted, the whiter and blander the end product.

Maize meal that has the least germ extracted is called ‘unsifted’; moving up the scale it becomes ‘sifted’, ‘special’ and ‘super’. Unsifted and sifted maize-meal products have been discontinued by the bigger millers. ‘Super’ is generally defined by millers as having less than 1% oil and it almost exclusively consists of the starchy endosperm. Degerminators were originally expensive technology used only by large mills, but today even relatively small maize millers have them.

The latest development in the quest for greater whiteness is colour-sorting machines, which examine every grain of maize and remove any discoloured (non-white) grain. …

A manager at Premier Foods’ Kroonstad mill, the largest in the world, said there might nevertheless still be some discoloured specks in the final product, which happened when the seed was white on the outside but had discolouration within.

Removing the germ from the maize meal means that it tastes blander and has a longer shelf life (the germ contains oil which goes off quickly). It also means that the meal is considerably less nutritious – even though South African millers do fortify maize meal and wheat flour with vitamins A, B1, B2, and B6, as well as niacin, folic acid, iron, and zinc. And what happens to the discarded germ? It goes into cattle feed, rendering animal feed more nutritious than human food.

This demand for white food is neither particular to South Africa – there is a similar trend in Mexico, for instance – nor is it a recent phenomenon. Historically, food that is white – white bread, white sugar, white rice, or white maize meal – is more expensive to produce because it needs to be processed in order to rid it of those impurities or elements which cause it to be darker in colour. white food is associated with wealth and luxury.

The coming of industrialised food production caused an increase in the scale of the adulteration of food to make it go further or seem more appealing. As a result of this, whiteness was associated increasingly with purity. Ironically, though, food producers used poisonous additives like caustic lime to make bread and other products whiter.

The production of food in factories also reduced its price, and this was particularly noticeable for highly processed products like white sugar and white flour. Now produced on a mass scale, even the very poor could afford to drink white sugar in their tea. Indeed, white bread and sugar came to be seen as ‘affordable luxuries’ from the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. These were comforting, ‘special’ items which could make an already meagre diet seem more luxurious. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

The miner’s family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread…? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn’t. … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! … White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

In the same way, in the midst of rising food prices and a stagnating job market, South Africa’s poor buy white, fine maize meal.

However, there does seem to be a surprising shift in bread sales, as lower-income consumers appear to be buying more brown bread – as opposed to the white bread they usually favour. This, though, is probably due to the fact that brown bread costs less because it’s exempted from value-added tax. This is a change caused by necessity rather than a new set of ideas around white or brown bread.

As Orwell makes the point, it’s the association of comfort with particular kinds of food which renders them more attractive – even if a diet rich in white sugar and white bread is not at all healthy. A combination of education, affluence, and a new set of values which associate unprocessed, ‘whole’ food – wholegrain bread, whole wheat flour, brown or wild rice, and sticky brown sugar – cause the middle classes to favour products which are overwhelmingly more nutritious.

It is infinitely strange that former peasant food – like polenta – should be sold at a premium to the middle classes at restaurants, while those who are poor prefer white maize because of an association with luxury and wealth. If we are to encourage more people to eat better, it’s clear that we need to lower the prices of ‘whole’ foods. But changing people’s buying habits is related more to a set of cultural assumptions about whiteness than to cost or even knowledge about their nutritional value.

Further Reading

Sources cited here:

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen (London: Atlantic, 2003).

Warren Belasco, Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1985).

George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Gollancz, 1937).

Lorine Swainston Goodwin, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusadors, 1879-1914 (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1999).

Other sources:

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (New York: WW Norton, [2010] 2011).

Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (eds.), Food Nations: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Jack Goody, ‘Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine,’ in Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 154-174.

Harvey A. Levenstein, ‘The Rise of the Giant Food Processors,’ Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 30-87.

Anne EC McCants, ‘Poor consumers as global consumers: The Diffusion of Tea and Coffee Drinking in the Eighteenth Century,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61 (2008), pp. 172-200.

Sidney W. Mintz, ‘Sweet, Salt, and the Language of Love,’ MLN, vol. 106, no. 4, French Issue: Cultural Representations of Food (Sep., 1991), pp. 852-860.

Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

James Walvin, Fruits of Empire: Exotic Produce and British Taste, 1660-1800 (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1997).

Creative Commons License Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.