In years to come, crisis communications experts will wheel out the case of Argyll and Bute council’s school dinners farrago as a textbook example of how not to do things.
For anyone who missed it, a wee girl who lives in Argyll and Bute council area decided she’d had enough of her rubbish school dinners and started a blog, Never Seconds.
On it, she posted daily photos of her dinner, provided some commentary about the quantity and the quality and included an easy to understand rating system.
The blog went viral. The girl, Martha Payne, aimed to highlight the problem and hopefully, get something done about it. The blog’s popularity also prompted her to start fundraising for Mary’s Meals, a Scottish charity which provides meals to children in developing countries as a way of enabling some of the world’s poorest children to go to school and get an education.
The powers that be at Argyll and Bute council didn’t like all the fuss, so told Martha that she was banned from taking photos of her dinners, but they were good enough to allow her to keep her blog.
Cue the social media storm, with people taking the council to task for their heavy-handedness and some of them having the audacity to poke fun at it.
Especially after a statement was put out claiming they had to take action to rebuff the “unwarranted attacks on its school catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs”.
The Education Secretary, who is also MSP for Argyll and Bute, got involved and advised he’d be seeking a reversal of the ban. This happened when a councillor went on to Radio 4’s World at One programme to sort it all out.
So a coup for people power and common sense has prevailed. Martha Payne 1: heavy-handed bureaucracy 0.
But the essential issue remains, that of the poor quality of school meals in Argyll and Bute and in other council areas, despite there being statutory provisions promoting nutrition in school meals in force.
The councillor advised that no complaints had actually been received in his area but that they’d be holding a school meals summit in the summer.
It would be great if similar summits could be held all over Scotland, for this is not the only council struggling to appreciate that healthy eating does not readily equate with meals heavy in saturated fats, various fried potato options and processed meat.
Indeed, our myopia on this issue serves to highlight the complete lack of joined up thinking on a vital area of public policy.
Daily, we are reminded of the childhood obesity epidemic in our midst and of the relationship between adult obesity and unhealthy eating habits with a wide range of long term health conditions and diseases, cancer foremost among them.
Yet, we have a key tool in our grasp to start shifting generational attitudes and health in the form of school meals. If ever there was an example of preventative spending in our policy midst, healthy school meals are it. And the wonderful photos on Martha’s blog show how other countries are managing to do it.
Martha’s blog campaign is a shining example of the power of shared interest, harnessed by the world wide web. But it was responded to in the worst possible manner, which says a lot about the value and respect for children in our society.
The council should have been celebrating the ingenuity and creativity of one of its younger citizens and working with Martha, and other children, to take a much more child-centred approach to the design and delivery of one of the very few services which is entirely about and for children. But it seemed more concerned about risks to its staff’s wellbeing – which of course it must and it should be when these are real – than in satisfying its duty of care to children, a duty which is prescribed in law.
Let’s hope that this episode encourages policymakers to change their approach to school meal provision and enables more children in more local authorities in Scotland to get involved in improve what they are fed at lunchtime. Let’s hope too that Argyll and Bute council gets itself a decent PR team.
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