Schools are back after a long and wet summer and parents throughout the country are breathing a sigh of relief. Champagne corks are popped, prescription drugs are returned to the cabinet, and thoughts of going anywhere near the moribund local museum to look at 19th century plough shears are put aside for a few golden months. All is right with the world bar one dark cloud looming over all parents of school age children: lunches.
Nothing quite defines the drudgery of domestic labour like the making of school lunches. As tiresome as it is preparing meals for the children ‘live’, it is nothing compared to the tedium of putting together a bento box worth of healthy snacks for a child who will probably not eat any of it and who will not thank you one way or another.
I prepare two– one for my 8 year old and one for my 1 year old. The eight year old and I have reached a fragile truce. I will prepare one sandwich which will be either peanut butter and jam (he’s American, you see) or salami and cheese. A few grapes. Some crackers. Slices of peeled cucumber. A single green apple cut into slices (he has a wiggly tooth, you see) and seasoned with the juice of a Jamaican lime to prevent oxidisation. He will, for now, tolerate this assemblage and will even deign to finish it.
I am certain one day soon he will come home, insane and viscious with hunger, and declare that nothing I have prepared for him is edible and that I am cruel and stupid and why won’t I just give him lumps of sugar like a tiny, eloquent horse?
The one year old, mercifully, is mostly mute. His complaints take the form of direct action. He is like a plump, pink Ghandi but far less problematic. He will say nothing until I have brought him home and taken his lunch box from his bag. There I will find an untouched grilled cheese sandwich. A handful of painstakingly slivered grapes. Ohakune’s finest carrot shredded just as he likes it. A smattering of jewel-like dried cranberries to refresh the palate. He has eaten nothing and he stares at me from two feet above the floor, defiance and the certainty of the coming victory dancing in his eyes. I place him in his highchair and put these offerings in front of him once more. He lowers himself to utter a single word: ‘no’, before sweeping all my hard work from the night before onto the already sticky vinyl floor. His triumph is total.
I weep. And begin the process once more.
In the UK where I lived for many years, school lunches are provided by the state. Even in the US, that hellscape of small government and big, stupid ideals, canteen lunches are the norm. In New Zealand, with our shameful levels of child poverty, it’s a scandal that we can’t provide this very basic service for our young people. It would be a worthy use of our tax dollars to provide a cooked meal for every school aged child five days a week. For people like me, who simply hate the chore, it’s a win. For people who are really struggling, for kids who might not eat another decent meal that day, it’s a godsend. Means test it by all means, my middleclass family will happily take the hit.
But please, dearest nanny state, make my kid’s lunch for me.