For the past two months, one of my favorite reads has been Never Seconds, a blog started by 9-year-old Martha Payne of western Scotland to document the unappealing, non-nutritious lunches she was being served in her public primary school. Payne, whose mother is a doctor and father has a small farming property, started blogging in early May and went viral in days. She had a million viewers within a few weeks and 2 million this morning; was written up in Time, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and a number of food blogs; and got support from TV cheflebrity Jamie Oliver, whose series "Jamie's School Dinners" kicked off school-food reform in England.
Well, goodbye to all that.
This afternoon, Martha (who goes by "Veg" on the blog) posted that she will have to shut down her blog, because she has been forbidden to take a camera into school. She said:
"This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.
"I only write my blog not newspapers and I am sad I am no longer allowed to take photos. I will miss sharing and rating my school dinners and I'll miss seeing the dinners you send me too."
A little later, her father Dave (who helped her set up the blog but has been hands-off on the content), added to her post:
"Veg's Dad, Dave, here. I felt it's important to add a few bits of info to the blog tonight. Martha's school have been brilliant and supportive from the beginning and I'd like to thank them all. I contacted Argyll and Bute Council when Martha told me what happened at school today and they told me it was their decision to ban Martha's photography."
Can we all agree how monumentally stupid this is? Here we have a kid who got excited enough about feeding children well that she not only changed the food in her own district - within two weeks, officials were allowing children in her school to have "unlimited salads, fruit and bread," which apparently was the policy all along only someone forgot to say so - but also got children around the world excited about their lunches too. Over the blog's seven weeks, she received images of school lunches from Germany, Japan, Finland, Illinois, Spain, Washington State, a school in Atlanta that keeps kosher, and on.
And no, to stave off the inevitable snark, she's not a bratty entitled kid. Here's how we know: By her 19th post, she decided she'd gotten enough attention that she wanted to redirect it somewhere useful, and she asked her followers to donate to a charity called Mary's Meals that funds school food in Africa. She started off the donations by sending £50 that she got from a magazine that reprinted some of her photos. By today, according to her father's note, she had raised £2,000.
We anguish about getting kids to be enthusiastic about healthy, sustainable food - to not prefer the bad stuff, not waste the good stuff, and not be entitled little monsters who whine about when their next chicken nugget is arriving. And then a child emerges who, out of her own creativity and curiosity, does all of that, and gets other children around the world excited about doing it too. And then she gets told she is offending the powers that be, and is slapped down.
Those would be the powers who told a 9-year-old that she was making "bad choices" out of the food being served at her school, without ever taking responsibility for what they had allowed to be offered. (Which is not necessarily the norm for school lunches in Scotland, as this piece from the Daily Record makes clear.) Infuriating.
If you'd like to tell the Argyll and Bute Council, who made the decision, exactly how idiotic they've been, their webpage is here. (And they are @argyllandbute on Twitter.) If you'd like to send support to Martha, you can leave a comment on her final post. (Her email is on the same page.) And if you'd like to honor her ingenuity by supporting the school-food charity she picked, the donation page is here. (While I was writing this post, the news of the no-photography rule was posted by the Argyll News and the media site STV-Glasgow. The Argyll and Bute Council has not responded.)
Thanks @MJRobbins for flagging NeverSeconds' goodbye post on Twitter.
Image by Never Seconds
So much happened overnight:
Huge amounts of public support, including from Jamie Oliver (who tweeted "Stay strong, Martha!") and Neil Gaiman.
214 news articles worldwide in the past 12 hours.
Another half-million pageviews at the NeverSeconds blog (and almost 1,000 comments on her Goodbye post, up from about 150 when I posted last night).
The Guardian proposed that people take pictures of their lunches and tweet them #MyLunchforMartha
Disappointingly, the Argyll and Bute Council remained thick-headed, releasing (at 10 a.m. UK time) a jawdroppingly unkind and accusatory statement that also appears to misrepresent what actually happened. (As several of the stories linked above make clear, Martha's father cleared her photo project with the teachers at her school, Lochgilphead Primary, and she did not criticize "the catering staff," only the lunches.) Thinking they might regret what they said, I took a screengrab of the statement, which I'll get up shortly; meanwhile Twitter user @PeterWalker99 posted the text here.
The charity for which Martha asked support, Mary's Meals, says that NeverSeconds' supporters blew through the £2,000 she hoped to raise, and have donated enough so far to build an entire new kitchen in Lirangwe Primary School, in Blantyre, Malawi. (Update 2.1: At Grist, Twilight Greenaway says giving is up to $35,000, and coins the excellent phrase "rage-donations.")
Update 3: Martha wins!
Three hours after its defensive statement was issued, the leader of the Argyll and Bute Council, Roddy McCuish, went on the BBC's World At One program on Radio 4 and announced they were backing off the ban in response to a request from Scotland's education minister along with vast pressure from social media. Here's the BBC story.
Sincere thanks to everyone who expressed support for NeverSeconds here and also via Twitter. The response truly was enormous - last night,the pageview counter on the NeverSeconds blog was updating about once per second, and this morning the hashtag #NeverSeconds was updating too fast to follow. It's a big win for transparency and for the importance of good food for children. Bravo all of you.
The Argyll and Bute Council has posted a new statement lifting the ban. (Disappointingly, they have done it at the same URL - but you can compare the old and new statements at my Scribd.) It is attributed to Roddy McCuish:
"There is no place for censorship in this Council and never will be whilst I am leader. I have advised senior officers that this Administration intends to clarify the Council's policy position in regard to taking photos in schools. I have therefore requested senior officials to consider immediately withdrawing the ban on pictures from the school dining hall until a report can be considered by Elected Members. This will allow the continuation of the "Neverseconds" blog written by an enterprising and imaginative pupil, Martha Payne which has also raised lots of money for charity.
But we all must also accept that there is absolutely no place for the type of inaccurate and abusive attack on our catering and dining hall staff, such as we saw in one newspaper yesterday which considerably inflamed the situation. That, of course, was not the fault of the blog, but of the paper.
We need to find a united way forward so I am going to bring together our catering staff, the pupils, councillors and council officials – to ensure that the council continues to provide healthy, nutrious and attractive school meals. That "School Meals Summit" will take place later this summer.
I will also meet Martha and her father as soon as I can, along with our lead councillor on Education, Michael Breslin to seek her continued engagement, along with lots of other pupils, in helping the council to get this issue right. By so doing Martha Payne and her friends will have had a strong and lasting influence not just on school meals, but on the whole of Argyll & Bute."