Veritas ex Gusto – but you can call me Veg

This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.

I only write my blog not newspapers and I am sad I am no longer allowed to take photos. I will miss sharing and rating my school dinners and I’ll miss seeing the dinners you send me too. I don’t think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen for Mary’s Meals either.

(Never Seconds blog, 15 June 2012)

Nine-year-old Martha Payne has become something of a phenomenon since her blog, Never Seconds went viral on the Internet.

It started simply enough. All Martha did was to photograph her school lunch every day and rate it out of 10. Her comments were always fair, and occasionally embarrassing, revealing shamefully small portions and unhealthy food – for example, one day she got just one potato croquette. She wasn’t out to get people – when she liked something, she was happy to say so – and at the beginning she wrote anonymously.

It wasn’t long before Martha was “outed” and the food on offer began to improve. Suddenly, children were told they’d always been entitled to ask for salad or vegetable choices. Jamie Oliver tweeted his support. Since his own sterling efforts to expose the shockingly poor quality of school meals (on average 37p a day is spent on them in England, about a third of the amount spent on feeding the inmates of HM Prison Service, or for that matter police dogs), he has remained vigilant. Recently he pointed out that the increasing number of academy schools being encouraged to set up by the Government are exempt from even the minimal standards imposed by legislation after his name-and-shaming work a few years ago. That means that a growing number of children are at risk of inadequate nutrition at lunch time and the arrival of vending machines in schools – a huge temptation to cash-strapped schools since one crisp and Mars bar dispensing machine can raise enough in a year to employ an extra classroom assistant – will not be monitored or controlled in academies. All this at precisely the point when growing numbers of families, forced into poverty by the recession, are having to claim free school meals.

Meanwhile Martha’s blog was going from strength to strength. It’s a beautiful example of child-led social change and learning in action. As well as attracting thousands of hits, she began to receive pictures of children’s school meals from all over the world. These aren’t just fascinating in their own right; they often expose the shortcomings of what is on offer in her own Scottish school. And when someone pointed out that Martha was lucky to be getting enough to eat, instead of curling up into a ball at such criticism, she agreed and launched a fund-raising link with the charity Mary’s Meals, delivering dinners to African kids.

It was inevitable that there’d eventually be a backlash. On Friday some idiot in the local council’s PR department banned Martha’s photography, having swallowed whole and undigested some crass local press coverage about dinner ladies fearing for their jobs that they could and should have denied. Fortunately, the Internet showed its good side by kicking up such a stink that hits on Never Seconds multiplied exponentially, Oliver tweeted, “Be strong, Martha” and the Council rapidly changed its mind. More credit to them. But it showed that Martha’s direct action had touched a raw nerve.

Jamie Oliver has done wonders to try to improve the lamentable diets of many schoolchildren, but the price of this desirable outcome is eternal vigilance. Martha never intended to become an Internet phenomenon, but she seems to be coping with it superbly. It’s hard to think of anything more educational, more desirable and more hopeful that this young lady could be doing.

And that would be the case even if she hadn’t set up the link with Mary’s Meals, which has now raised over £59,000 – enough money to fund eight kitchens in Malawi.

Martha’s Just Giving Page

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