Food at Summerhill is prepared by the kitchen staff. This is a professional team with qualifications in catering and nutrition. They prepare a menu on a two weekly cycle with a variety of options and choices so that children can not only eat what they like but what is good for them as well. There is always plenty of fruit and vegetables and there is a balance of different meat and fish dishes through the week.
The catering staff prepare three meals a day. Breakfast starts at 8 in the morning and most people eat cereal and toast. Lunch is the major meal of the day, served from 12.30 to 1:30, with options for the first plate and a dessert if you want it. Supper is served around 5:30-6:15. It is a lighter meal. Since this means that there is no food available for almost 14 hours, the older kids often open what they call “evening breakfast”, which means that kids can have cereals and toast later in the evening. They have to clear up after themselves and organise all the cutlery, bowls, milk and cereals.
There are other options for eating. The Café is a social space above the woodwork where there is a kitchen, workbench and a range of blocks that can be arranged for seating. This space is often used by groups who want to cook for each other. When I was there it was often used by Carriage kids who had a keen interest in cooking.
I was approached by three Carriage kids saying that they wanted to get a qualification in Cookery. I looked into it.
“This is what there is,” I said. “It is called Food Technology. You learn about food in all its dimensions.”
“And do you cook as well?” I was asked.
“Oh yes, but there is a theoretical component.”
“That is OK. We’ll do it.”
“Are you sure? The books aren’t cheap.”
“Yes, we are sure.”
But they were not sure at all. After struggling for half a term, and with people starting to drift away from the class because the text book was so boring, we had a meeting and decided to ditch the exam and get on with what we really wanted to do: cooking. They organised themselves to research recipes and buy ingredients, sorted out a timetable so that it would be fair and went for it. This was much better for me. I was around if anyone needed help but in essence they just got on with it by themselves. They even organised theme nights when they prepared typical dishes from their own cultures. They did not get a qualification but I don’t think they needed one anyway. It soon involved many more people than the first group that wanted to get qualified.
Having the opportunity to cook is great for kids who complain about food. If they don’t like what is on offer they can do something about it. Children always complain about food. It is one of those areas where they recognise they have a little power to irritate adults and they like to take advantage. Sometimes they complain because the food is not like what they eat at home and I am pretty sure they do not eat what they are given at home either. At Summerhill, no one takes much notice. If you want something special for yourself to remind you of home the café is the place where you can prepare it, or get an older kid to prepare it for you.
“Cooking for someone” is a big deal at Summerhill. Some adults have basic cooking facilities and kids like to nag and badger staff to cook them a meal. This means that there is an active culture around food. Hospitality is a big deal. This can extend to barbecued sausages on a bonfire at the edge of the field.
Summerhill attracts people with alternative visions of the world. There have been vegans, vegetarians, fruitarians and even people who ate nothing but raw food, although she was the mother of a staff member and only on a visit. The school does its best to accommodate different tastes and food philosophies but it has not gone organic and it has not promoted a vegetarian culture like the Krishnamurti school. Neill had bread made according to his own recipe, but I imagine the kids steered away from it.
The overt reason the school does not impose a food philosophy on the kids is that, when you give children freedom, they tend to eat a lot of “unhealthy” food. They are so busy playing that they come in and grab some bread and load it up with jam and nutella, scoff it down and get back out to play as soon as they possibly can. You could say that this is precisely the reason why adults should NOT allow children free choice over food. “If you don’t set some standards, they will just eat junk,” you might say.
I smell a moralistic rat here. Behind it is the idea that you know better because you are a grown-up. You know what is good and bad and the children should do what they are told or they will suffer. If you have read anything else I have written you will know that I have a deep-seated prejudice against moralisms and moralists. It seems to me that you could argue just as easily that the kid who is forced to eat his brussels sprouts because they are good for him will grow up with a hatred of sprouts than might even extend to the whole of Belgium and the EU. You should eat sprouts when you want them, not because someone is telling you they are good for you.
It is never as clearly two-sided as this. Few people insist their children eat food they do not like by force. Few people make a complete ban of sugary snacks, even though there are health arguments for doing so. On the other hand responsible adults don’t give kids the key to the larder and tell them to fix their own food either. As I said, at Summerhill there are qualified staff who are responsible for the majority of the food preparation and they follow guidelines on nutrition and healthy eating.
Now, if you decide not to eat, well, that is your business.