Should we bring back school milk?

So I read an article yesterday in the Herald. Nick Xenophon was suggesting that we re-introduce “School Milk” back into our educational institutions to assist the struggling dairy industry, and to promote nutrition. The response from readers who had lived through this in the past was less than glowing. For some, it had turned them off milk forever!

I cover this topic in my book Primary School Confidential, so I thought I would share a chapter of it here. Bottoms up!

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Can we talk about school lunches? When did things get so complicated? And why are kids so allergic to everything? If you enter primary school packing a peanut sambo, you are practically arrested.

Schools take this very seriously, and so they should. Anaphylactic shock is never something to be flippant about. But lets take a look back in time and see where the mania of the healthy school lunch started.

At the turn of the 19th Century, compulsory school attendance had only just come into play. You were sent to school with a belly full of porridge, where you would spend time reciting poetry, and developing other useful life skills. Your lunch would be bread and jam, or bread and dripping.

And just what is bread and dripping? Let me explain.

When a joint of meat is roasted, all the fat and sinew drip out and congeals. This “meat” jelly is then smeared onto bread, wrapped up in wax paper and sent off to school with you, often entombed in a metal tin, which heats up the sandwich and turns the whole thing into mush. Nom.

But in 1922, something happened that would revolutionize school lunches. An outfit called The Fred Walker Company used brewers yeast to develop a product that would be called Pure Vegetable Extract. This name was changed to Vegemite, and out to market it went.

But Australians were not buying it, both literally and physically, for they were already heavily into the English version, Marmite. In 1928 the spread had a rebrand, and was re-introduced to consumers under the name Parwill.

Because is Marmite, then Parwill. And no, I am not making this up.

In terms of a marketing initiative, it was an epic fail. The name was changed back to Vegemite, and before you know it, the British Medical Association got themselves all excited about the medicinal benefits of vegemite, that being that it was so jam-packed with Vitamin B that it should be embraced with gusto.

And with gusto it was! Because we love our Vegemite, we all adore our Vegemite; it puts a rose, in every cheek. Today we buy over 22 million jars of the thick black spread, and it is still our most popular sandwich spread.

At this point, sandwiches were the main staple of the school lunch pail. And by pail, I mean a metal tin. Growing up, I dearly, dearly wanted a Mork and Mindy Lunch Pail. I mean, everyone else had one so why couldn’t I? I also wanted a big clunky drink bottle, made of plastic containing plenty of evil PVA to contaminate my Tang.

But there was to be no Tang, for I was a child of the bubbler era, which meant I swung between in being in a serious state of dehydration because the bubblers were broken, or I was completely soaked because the bubblers were working a little too well.

At least we were not being force fed warm milk, like those who went before me were. School kids, in the years from 1950 through to 1973, had a small glass bottle of milk given to them at the morning recess, because it was believed that it would be beneficial for children’s physical health, not to mention milk makes kids smarter.

The problem was that the milk was delivered in the morning, and sat in the sun until by the time it was ready for consumption, it had slightly gone off. Many ex-students of the time, today even have an issue with drinking milk. The Whitlam Government came to power, had a look at the scheme and kicked the bucket over. No more milk for you!

Today there is some strong arguments against kids drinking cow’s milk, with the message being spread that it is designed to feed rapidly growing calves, not little children. It is said that such consumption could be linked to allergies, diabetes, constipation and ear infections. Food Nazis might implore you to replace the milk on your kids’ cereal with any of the following;

  • Soy Milk
  • Almond Milk
  • Rice Milk
  • Goat Milk
  • Sheep Milk
  • Buffalo Milk
  • Oat Milk
  • Hemp Milk
  • Cashew Nut Milk
  • Coconut Milk

And of course there are fierce arguments about these too. Sometimes it is dangerous to know too much, I think. I certainly know that it is tedious.

But back to my lunch. Everyday I had a vegemite sandwich on white bread, which may or may not have been fresh, depending on the day. It was wrapped in a sandwich bag that had a folding closed type mechanism that failed everyday. Next to it was either a banana or an apple. And then there was the treat! The treat was either a Scotch Finger Biscuit (with a crunch that was made to share, except I never did) or a bit of homemade something/something. Like slice.

Which brings me to zip lock bags, or as I like to call them, Mummy’s Little Helper. Publicly shunned by many Primary Schools who have a no waste policy, I have spoken to teachers the world over, and here is the hot tip.

The like them as well. And use them for their own lunches, for keeping flashcards together and for sorting and classifying their counters.

But the impact on the environment cannot be ignored, so when you get the letter home from school, saying that there is a Litter Free Lunch next Tuesday, you plan to keep your kids home that day because you do not want to fork out for the unbreakable Tupperware litter-free lunchbox again. Because it is always used as a soccer ball after eating time has finished.

And it is not unbreakable. Trust me.

But just what to put in that lunchbox? Many Government websites have loads of information to help you through this arduous task. Where once your Mum slapped two pieces of bread together, and slapped you on the back as you left for school, now you practically need a degree in Nutrition as to not raise any eyebrows, should someone spy a pre-packaged item in your kids bag.

Ideally your offering would cover off some fruits and veggies, something starchy, something containing protein and something from the dairy family.

AND DON’T YOU DARE LOOK AT THAT MINI PACKET OF TINY TEDDIES. I know that they are convenient and will get eaten, but would you let your kid take a loaded gun into school?

Some would think that they are both the same kind of thing.

I believe the main change in packed lunches over the years is the actual box itself. Gone are they days of the tin pail. The new kids on the block boxes are insulated satchels complete with an area to insert a frozen brick to keep the contents cool and fresh. When I think back to our inferior conditions when it came to food hygiene, I wonder how any of us survived! Nowadays you can actually buy lunchboxes that have solar panels, allowing you to heat or cool your food, whichever you might require.

My lunches were always hot, but not by design. Always vegemite and always squishy. I recall one day sitting on the bench at lunchtime. I would have been in year one I think; at least still the age that you had to sit and eat your lunch before you could go and play.

I had the habit of making sure that my sandwich had the correct margarine to Vegemite ratio going on before I ate it. I do not know why, but I just did. As I opened up the sandwich, I found myself under the flight path of one of those hideous playground pests, the revolting Indian Mynah Bird.

That particular Mynah bird must have been particularly unwell, because it dropped its guts onto my sandwich, adding a spread of its own.

So of course I immediately became completely hysterical and had to be taken to the office for some soothing words and an emergency sandwich.

“A bird pooed on my vegemite sandwich and I am starving to death…!”

Because it was considered an “Act of God” and not a forgetful, hungover or lazy parent who just could not be bothered to pack the a lunch (not like some kids parents… *ahem*) I was able to go to the canteen and have the kind ladies prepare me a sandwich fresh for free, which of course was Vegemite and done with the correct ratio of spread to margarine, as per my instructions.

All these decades later, I have never forgiven that species of bird for ruining my lunch, and scaring the living bejeezus out of me.

They are still prolific in Australian playgrounds, and you still find them digging though bins and even in classrooms. They were introduced in the late 1800’s to control the pest situation at the Melbourne Market Gardens. Turns out this bird loved Australia, could breed in any climate and is now the most predominant bird along the East Coast.

They are often called “Rats with Wings” because of their scabby behavior and are one of only 3 birds worldwide that features in the top 100 Worst Invasive Species on the Global Invasive Species Database.

I write about this bird with particular distain, all due to that fateful day when one shat on my sandwich.

Another thing that is different now is the absence of the dog in the school playground. Back then there was always a stray dog roaming the grounds, or someone’s pet that had followed them to school. These dogs were also fond of stealing lunches.

And then there was this huge Labrador who used to swing by from time to time. This big blonde beast had a huge set of balls on him, which would supply his brain with the testosterone surge needed, as he sought out small children to dry hump.

The very sight of him coming through the school gate would cause a class to break out into hysterics.

My journey though the grades coincided with a time where many immigrants were coming to Australia to settle, peaking in 1988. A few new families joined our school communities, bringing with them a plethora of new lunchbox items. All of a sudden I was swapping my vegemite sandwich for two handmade kibbeh, and was completely delighted at the very idea.

Meanwhile my Lebanese mate got to acquaint herself with an Australian Icon.

A Maori family moved into the suburb and offered to host a Hangi feast at school. This meant that all the male teachers spent the best part of one Friday morning digging a huge hole in the earth next to the cricket nets. A large (not quite sure what it actually was.) beast was lowered down and covered with more earth.

I cannot recall a great occupational health and safety presence, nor can I remember any sort of hygiene involved, but what I can tell you was that I was not a fan of that feast. I recall very fatty meat but I loved the spirit of occasion.

Another family who joined us were from Malta. Two very sour-faced twin girls turned up in our class and I could not WAIT to see what they had in their lunchboxes. Their Mum and Dad had taken over the milkbar, so when I saw that their lunch pails had exotic looking, delicious little pastries in them alongside a full sized Coca Cola, In enquired whether I might partake in a little taste test.

I was refused with these stinging words.

“Maybe your Dad should buy a take-away then…” Sour face, with slight sneer.

I mean, women can be so bitchy.

Which brings me back to scabbing. Heaven forgive you were ever labeled a scab. That word can follow you around for weeks. Scabbing, for those not in the know, is the art of persistently nagging your fellow students for either a bit of their ice block, or 5 cents to buy 5 carob* buds at the canteen. The art to being a sneaky scab is to know when to fold them, and not simply being a pain in the ass.

And of course you had to pay it forward, when approached by someone you scabbed off yesterday with their scabby request today. Pay up.

Scab. Such a charming word.

*carob buds are the devils work.

Want to read more? Click here to order Primary School Confidential.

Do you have a memorable lunch box story to share?