School dinners: memories of semolina, rubbery meat and pitatoes so hard they were lethal weapons when chucked

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Fife Council marked 30 years of National Schools Meal Week this week - and the milestone underlined just far those dinners have come since I left school.

Healthy options and nutritionally balanced meals were simply not on the menu when we were fed at Forrester Annexe in Edinburgh - a late 1970s school so grim it has long since been demolished. I’d have happily danced on its rubble.

For a start it didn’t have its own kitchens, so the meals were delivered in a fleet of vans and served out of giant metal containers which were filled up somewhere else in the city - we never did find out if that was down the road or miles away. The food always looked warm. Invariably it was just that - lukewarm.

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Regardless of what was delivered, it was tasteless. The meat was rubbery and unidentifiable, the potatoes so rock hard they were lethal missiles as a mate found out when someone aimed one at his head from across the cabin, sparking a food fight, and the puddings put me off semolina for life. Even the mention of the food today gives me the boak. It came with a red sauce which may have been raspberry, or could have been because someone making it cut their finger, either way it had the taste of woodchip wallpaper soaked in gloop. As for the custard, the skin on top made my skin crawl.

How school meals looked in the 1970-s (Pic: Evening Standard/Getty Images)How school meals looked in the 1970-s (Pic: Evening Standard/Getty Images)
How school meals looked in the 1970-s (Pic: Evening Standard/Getty Images)

There was also some chocolate crisp cake so hard it was named ‘chisel cake’ on the grounds you needed one to break it into bits. Attempts to do so using your teeth resulted in an emergency trip to the school nurse.

My abiding memories of school dinners arriving at Forrester were of the van squeezing between the boys and girls queues - segregation ruled, that’s how modern thinking the place was - which allowed some kids to unscrew the indicator flights, remove the bulbs and put them back to defy the belt happy teachers who patrolled the dinner queues as if they were security guards. Little wonder most of us bunked out of school to Stenhouse Cross where apple turnovers and chips fuelled us for the rest of the day, and, in all honestly, set in motion a lifetime of dreadful diets.

School dinners in the 70s and 80s really were appalling. Back then at primary school, kids on free school meals had to hand over different coloured plastic tokens - you might as well have stuck a badge on them that said “skint, probably from a broken home.” I was too young to understand the stigma. Today I’d be outraged if kids were treated in such a way.

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Things certainly improved when we left the wretchedly grim school behind and moved to the newly opened Wester Hailes Education Centre. It had a kitchen and a menu! We actually had a choice which extended further than take it or leave it. The food was hot and tasty and we discovered exotic dishes such as ravioli, and not out of a tin either.

Back then, no-one really talked about healthy eating, and I cannot recall a single question about dietary requirements which I suspect explains a lot about the state of my generation’s health.

So thank goodness things have changed. School meals are more important than ever - the only hot food some kids get all day, all week.

I do hope semolina is off the menu for good though …

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