Hot school meals should be a routine fact of Irish life

Patchiness of Government scheme shows up the extent of food extremes that coexist here

In revolutionary Ireland 100 years ago, the formal promise was made that ‘no child should suffer hunger’. Photograph: iStock

In revolutionary Ireland 100 years ago, the formal promise was made that ‘no child should suffer hunger’. Photograph: iStock

 

No Dublin restaurant was granted a star in the Egon Ronay Guide in the mid-1970s, though the Arbutus Lodge in Cork was awarded two stars and rising chef Paulo Tulio’s Armstrong’s Barn in Annamoe, Co Wicklow, was feted for delicacies that included lamb’s kidneys with mustard sauce and venison with juniper berries. Despite such innovations, food historian Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire acknowledged in the book Tickling the Palate (2014) “Ireland, until recently, appeared as only the smallest of dots on the map of high gastronomy. Too many self-avowed connoisseurs were convinced that Irish food began and ended with bacon and cabbage, or the lack thereof”. Mac Con Iomaire has also suggested that 1950s Ireland was a superior gastronomic location than Britain, but as his fellow food historian Frank Armstrong observes, the culinary bar was hardly high in 1950s Britain.

Social historian Tony Farmar recorded that what struck some observers of the Irish restaurant scene in the 1960s was that “nine out of 10 ordered steak every time, with nine out of 10 ordering chips with it”; eating was seemingly not for enjoyment and to speak enthusiastically about it was considered vulgar. Granted, the restaurant in the Russell Hotel was renowned, and while there was undoubtedly high-quality food at the famed Jammet’s restaurant, which closed in 1967, as much seems to have been written about its decor, customers and prices as about its food.

John Lennon signed Jammet’s visitors’ book with a self-portrait and the message “The other three are saving up to come here” while John Ryan, a regular customer, recalled “the main dining room was pure French Second Empire, with a lovely faded patina to the furniture, snow-white linen, well-cut crystal, monogrammed porcelain.”

Man about town

Writer Ulick O’Connor, who died earlier this week at the age of 90, was a notorious pugilist who fancied himself as quite the man about town. Whatever about his worthy forays into biography, history, politics and poetry, he also liked to cut a dash sartorially and dine well. When he was not busy fighting with restaurant staff or customers, he turned his attention to reviewing the food, informing readers of Magill magazine in 1978 of the dearth of quality, and the chicken dishes that he mocked as “the frozen leather served up in many restaurants today”. He was not alone in his admonishments: Theodora Fitzgibbon, cookery correspondent for the Irish Times from 1968-1984 referred to the “average overpriced Dublin restaurant” with customers “eating poorly cooked food with apparent relish”.

The level of sophistication and originality that exists in the contemporary Irish restaurant scene was reflected in this week’s announcement that Ireland now has a trio of two-star Michelin restaurants: Aimsir in Celbridge, Co Kildare, and Patrick Guibaud and The Greenhouse in Dublin. Aimsir’s tasting menu costs €115, while the Greenhouse’s six-course tasting menu is €129, and if you are looking for a seat soon, forget it. Those who have laboured to bring Irish restaurant standards sky-high deserve the stars and plaudits, but it is of course elite dining beyond the reach of most.

Food poverty

What should not be beyond the reach of anyone, however, especially children, is a decent hot meal, and I was struck during the week at the extent of the food extremes that coexist in this country. Food poverty is experienced by one in 10 households with children in Ireland, in the region of 80,000 households. As part of Budget 2019, Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty announced that hot dinners would be provided on a pilot basis in up to 36 primary schools from last month at a cost of €1 million for 2019 and €2.5 million in a full year. Yet it was reported recently that the department turned down 470 primary schools that applied for the scheme.

Increased funding announced this week in Budget 2020 will enable Doherty to expand the free meals scheme. Any intervention in this vital area is to be welcomed but the ambition needs to be genuinely bold. An indication of the historic neglect of this issue is that 50 years ago this newspaper reported “the outlook on legislative development for school meals continues to be bleak”; at that stage, through a combination of exchequer and local authority funding, only 50,000 pupils, 10 per cent of the total number, were receiving midday meals.

In 2013, DCU established the Hunger Prevention in Schools Strategy Group for this simple reason: “A systematic national strategy to prevent hunger in schools is not currently in place”. Director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre at DCU, Paul Downes, notes that free school meals are “a routine, unremarkable feature” in numerous other European countries. These are European countries whose political leaders did not, unlike in revolutionary Ireland 100 years ago, formally promise that “no child should suffer hunger”, but be “provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education.”

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