The Tuck Shop Diary
Food from the perspective of school children, in their own words. Compiled by Will Yates.
Welcome to Vittles Season 7: Food and Policy. Each essay in this season will investigate how a single or set of policies intersects with eating, cooking and life. For our fourth week, we have contributions by Lexi Earl, Thea Everett, Will Yates, Katie Randall and Laura Thomas on how policy has, and continues to affect eating and food education in British schools. You can find the whole series here:
In this piece, former secondary school teacher Will Yates shares his project ‘the tuck shop diary’, in which students write their own reflections on the school canteen.
The Tuck Shop Diary
Scenes from morning break, written and compiled by Will Yates.
In the large comprehensive secondary school where I taught until last summer, the canteen was a lifeline in the most literal sense of the word. My school was in one of the country’s poorest postcodes, with 45% of our pupils eligible for free school meals. In the weeks following our return from the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns, the lunch bell brought with it expressions of palpable relief on kids’ faces; more than once, a child tearing down the corridors mid-lesson was pacified by the offer of a panini, after it emerged they’d not had any breakfast.
But food was only half the canteen’s value: for the students at our school (a fraction of the 800,000 children the Food Foundation estimates live in poverty but do not receive free school meals), the canteen was a safe space to eat £2 strip burgers and fries from one of the chicken shops across the road, confident in the knowledge that the duty teachers and canteen staff had bigger concerns than ensuring that only proprietary food was consumed on the premises.
Last year, those bigger concerns were mine to deal with. Trying to squeeze well over 150 students through the turnstile and food counters in a fifteen-minute break-time requires the physical presence of a Berghain bouncer, the grace of a seasoned diplomat and the multifocal attention of an orchestral conductor – none of which I possess. Instead, I took the shouted instructions of our head chef as gospel and tried to make sure nobody caused a melee at the patty counter.
In my final term, wanting to make the most of my interactions with the kids, I decided that the people who are the most affected by school dinner policy – and the least heard – should have a chance to air their own thoughts. I started a project that I called ‘The Tuck Shop Diary’. The idea was simple: for a few weeks, I would give students in the canteen a booklet of food writing (Nigel Slater, Ruby Tandoh, Michael Winner) in the hope that they’d also write about what they, or others, were eating that day. Beyond that, and a vague plea not to cuss out their mates, I didn’t really apply any restrictions at all.
The hardest part of the project was finding pupils willing to take part. ‘But what do I say, Sir?’, they asked. It surprised me – after all, teenagers aren’t short of strong opinions. But over the next few weeks, I watched them begin to scribble, and write they eventually did.
Snippets from tuck shop diaries
One of the more striking tendencies was an overwhelming willingness to defend the canteen as an institution, regardless of students’ thoughts on the post-Jamie’s School Dinners menu restrictions. Some, such as Sundus, even appreciated it, offering a brisk, businesslike endorsement of the food options:
The canteen offers a great variety of snacks that appeal to everyones preferences. For example, the canteen alternates between different cultural cuisines. We have seen foods from all across the world such as Indian, Greek and Lebanese. I especially like the curry and stir fried rice, as it is quite flavourful. Many people have had positive comments on the cultural foods. Sundus, Year 8
For some of the older pupils, the comments were more forthright. Jainit’s account opened with a bombastic assessment of the canteen and the bagel he ate there, before lapsing into more circumspect tones on both topics.
Beyond the toxicity of the lunchline, more specifically towards queue-skipping prefects, there lies a silver lining. For lunch today I had a scrumptious cheese and tomato bagel. This bagel is quite special for not only me but pretty much the whole of the school. Its cheesy and gooey filling almost is delightful, but then you remember it’s the canteen food, which might be a necessity but could be upgraded majorly. Soft bagel buns are light and fluffy like they should be and was a good change from a sit down focused hot meal. Overall I enjoyed this delight and was a solid 7 out of 10. Jainit, Year 10
One of the grim realities of tight school budgets is that catering staff have very little discretion to look the other way if pupils can’t pay. What this means in practice is that going to the canteen with friends is more than just a social occasion – it’s an insurance policy. Paying for others’ food, often without any expectation of reciprocity down the line, is commonplace. Still, as Ismail alluded to, there’s a level of deference involved in a group trip to the canteen:
I ran down the stairs running through a huge angry crowd praying the lunch line wasn’t long. My prayers were answered as it unbelievably took 30 seconds for me to be let in. As I went in and explored my options, I couldn’t make up my mind on what to get. I was wondering should I have my usual Halal chicken burger or try something new, the cous cous and chicken wrap. I knew I had to make up my mind quick before one of the ladies would shout the usual ‘hurry up’. I asked a fellow friend and he said why don’t you try something new, so I chose the cous cous rap. I wasn’t happy with the amount of chicken I was given, it was a little amount, although the wrap was delightful and succulent for £1.80. I would give this wrap a solid 7.5 out of 10, could’ve been a 9 if I had more chicken. Ismail, Year 10
In schools with a majority of Muslim kids, halal chicken burgers are major canteen currency. Joel’s account of his disappointment at a last-minute menu change was a tour de force, capturing how a canteen trip can make or break your day:
I was betrayed in the canteen, like a friend who promises you something beyond delightful but either delivers it like a UPS deliveryman or delivers nothing at all.
After my arduous two hours of English in a classroom more vacant than a literal ghost town, my friend and I blitzed down the stairs, probably insulting Newton by moving beyond lightspeed past the various lower years in our path. And then we arrived at the canteen, where time seemed to firmly stand for an eternity until the place opened.
Sausage rolls, hot dogs, baguettes, bagels, fruits, sandwiches, chips, waffles. All gracefully adorned the place.
However, something was missing. Thursday’s blessing was absent from the mortal realm.
While they are a clear 6/10 and quite simple, they still exceed every other insignificant item. Whenever I’d eat them my faith in the canteen would be restored a bit. But, the people in the canteen have made an irrevocable mistake. I was betrayed. I was betrayed in the canteen.
Anyways, grapes are very delicious, well I’d say every fruit is beyond the quota of delicious. This may be me compensating for my betrayal (it is), but I don’t care. Joel, Year 10
Like any piece of school work, the diary suffered from a lack of time and focus, but across the few weeks of its lifespan I saw more and more kids keen to get involved. In recent years, teenagers have been subjected to a gamut of school-based frustrations and miseries – you could forgive them for being angry about how they can’t even get a Diet Coke at lunchtime. But, as Kayden’s account shows, there are some joys that not even Michael Gove can take away.
every day I go To The canteen The canteen Lady check if I am not in Truble.
Today she ascd my From Tutor mr mowle To check iF I had a good week.
he said yes!
as a Reward She gave me a Icecream.
and the Icecream was nice. Kayden, Year 7
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li.
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