You've probably heard the stories of head teachers acting as overpaid dinnerladies and the kids not knowing one end of their knives and forks from the other, but that's not the full story of the introduction of infant free school meals, says Justin Fairhall
It's been two terms since Nick Clegg's much-trumpeted plan to offer a free lunchtime meal to four to seven-year-olds got under way. Since then, the media hasn't been short of stories about more food ending up in bins than being eaten, sandwiches being sent in every day by taxi and the kids turning their noses up at traditional puddings.
So has it been a total disaster? Well, while the stories have continued, Nick Clegg has proudly announced that the take-up level has been at 85%.
But what about those tasked with supplying a two-course meal for £2.30? As school meal caterers ourselves, we decided right from the start (conversely, some might say) to use increased numbers as an opportunity to increase the quality of the food and not take the well-worn route of producing the typical food that most people remember (ie would rather forget) from their own school days (or as our operations director described it, "the grim institutional atmosphere of the past").
And by that we didn't just mean ensuring the meals included the right amounts of nutrients for a healthy diet (the bland food that has been a turnoff for kids in previous government attempts to improve school meals); we decided instead to change the whole ethos.
Rather than seeing school meals as a necessary evil, as has often been portrayed in the media, schools have been behind changes such as hotel-style salad bars and, encouraged by us, some have even requested china plates, tablecloths and flower displays.
Dinnerladies. Providing school meals shouldn't be just about giving these kids a hot meal, it should also be about
giving them the life skill of enjoying eating in a civilised environment, something many might never discover at home.
We're not the only ones evangelical about the impact school meals can have. Such is the movement towards better quality in school meals that we've attracted a former John Lewis chef as our new development chef. She too is keen to be part of this revolution. Hopefully there will be a new generation of children who might actually grow up with some fond memories of their school lunches and an appreciation of good food that will filter through to the rest of the catering industry.
Justin Fairhall is managing director of the Cambridge and London-based school meals caterer Lunchtime Company