19 May 2022
It’s not often someone outside the rarefied air of celebrity chefdom publishes anything on school meals, certainly not one who promises help with “understanding the hidden politics of school food”. So it was with a boundless sense of anticipation that I opened Marcus Weaver-Hightower’s book.
Pitched as just as relevant to UK readers as it is to its intended American audience, it’s a heady trawl through the professor’s personal experiences, the history of school food, political dogma and policy lessons to be avoided. But its focus, and its failing from the British reader’s perspective, is that so much of it is about school meals policy in the US.
It’s not a bad read; the author does his best to keep the book flowing and interesting while overlaying some of the more arcane socio-political constructs. However, if the conflict of American neo-liberal discourse versus neo-conservative hegemony isn’t your carton of milk, much of the first three quarters of the book can feel quite a drag. But if it is, then this 160-page slog through the awfulness of the American political and economic system laid bare via the medium of school food should hit the spot.
The reprieve for those of us on this side of the Atlantic comes in the shape of the 40 pages that make up chapter five, where we are led through a potted history of our own Universal Infant Free School Meals policy via one of the most devastating pieces of writing I’ve ever read. It’s eviscerating of both Michael Gove and Henry Dimbleby as it logs their contribution to the school food plan and pitches it as political spectacle, a neo-liberal exercise in obfuscation that ultimately adds up to nothing more than a repackaging of existing ideas.
Weaver-Hightower is unabashed in his criticism of Gove exempting academies from the food standards, and outright disdainful of former management consultant Dimbleby’s opportunistic self-promotion. Strangely, the Lib Dems avoid the same roasting despite their role in policymaking as members of the coalition government at the time.
Some of us remember the now-president of global affairs at Meta Platforms, Nick Clegg, promising us that universal infant free school meals was “the best intervention”. In reality of course, it has had little, if any, impact and seems to be a policy withering on the vine – underfunded, unloved, a last totem of the Lib Dems’ short time in government.
Bringing everyone right up to date, the chapter ends on the author’s consternation that the main protagonists of this political storm in a teacup are somehow now in charge of ‘levelling up’ and the national food strategy. You and me both, Mr Weaver-Hightower. You and me both.
Sadly, however, though meticulously well researched, ultimately the book suffers the same fate as so many that attempt to analyse policies across international borders. While a common language may bond us, so much around the setup, the funding models and management make it impossible to draw practical lessons from any comparison. There are some interesting philosophical arguments around school meals provision, but the pragmatist in me doesn’t see these as overly relevant or transferable to the UK systems.
The undoubted highlight of Unpacking School Lunch is the way it serves up Gove and Dimbleby as canaries in the coal mine. We tend to haughtily assume the American example is always the poorer one, but in this case our policy stands as Weaver-Hightower’s warning label to American consumers.
Unfortunately, the book’s chief policy solution is in fact universal free meal provision, which it offers up as a dietary cure for all that ails the American education system. Which seems rather to have missed the point of the English example.
We can certainly agree with the conclusion we are encouraged to come to, that allowing people like Michael Gove and his Etonian mates to make policy doesn’t always end particularly well. It most certainly applies to free school meals, and very probably to a number of other contexts.
But on the whole, its menu recommendation is unlikely to leave its American readers satisfied, and certainly won’t wow the British palate.