Nothing like the power of the press, and a few photographs of coronation chicken.
This week, British primary school student Martha Payne, whose uber-popular blog “NeverSeconds” documents her tasty (and not-so-tasty) school meals, was thrust into the international news spotlight when her local government ordered her to cease and desist her pesky photographing.
Yes, the Council of Argyll and Bute decided that the 9-year-old was a threat to school staff wellbeing. The school meals crew, it said, was often in tears from the international attention to offerings such as “vegetable soup and sausages with roast potatoes,” which Payne rates by a 1 to 10 “Food-o-meter” scale, as well as by “mouthfuls,” “price,” “health,” and “pieces of hair.” (This particular item had one of the latter, under a cucumber.)
“Argyll and Bute Council wholly refutes the unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs,” the Council said in a statement.
(A statement, I must add, that has received criticism in the British press not only for its censoring inclinations, but for the misuse of “refute.” Gotta love the Brits.)
Now, for folks on this side of the Atlantic (or those who have just blocked out school mealtime memories), Payne started her NeverSeconds blog earlier this spring, using her dad’s camera to shoot pics of the meals served at her primary school in western Scotland.
The first entries show sad little portions of mass produced pizza, scatterings of corn kernels and lone croquettes. (“The pizza in the first pic was alright but I’d have enjoyed more than 1 croquet,” Payne wrote. “I’m a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I cant do it on 1 croquette ... The good thing about this blog is Dad understands why I am hungry when I get home.”)
She signed the posts VEG, noting that her dad said she should call herself “Veritas Ex Gusto,” or “truth from tasting” in Latin.
“But who knows Latin?” she asked. “You can call me Veg.”
Within weeks, millions were following the 9-year-old’s culinary adventures. She started raising money through a Justgiving page for Mary’s Meals, a Scottish organization that provides school meals to children in the developing world, and collected thousands of pounds. Students around the world started sending her photos of their school lunches. Scottish celebrity chef Nick Nairn took interest in her work, and joined Payne for a cooking demo.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the meals started to improve.
But eventually, the Argyll and Bute Council had enough. (It was apparently a newspaper photo of Payne with Nairn, under the headline “Time to Fire the Dinner Ladies,” that was the last straw for local government.) Payne’s photographs, it said, only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils. The blog was spreading “misinformation.” Catering staff were in tears from the negative publicity. They told Payne’s school that officials there needed to ban the 9-year-old from taking any more photos.
Yesterday, Payne posted this message on NeverSeconds, under the heading “Goodbye.”
“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.”
And that, it seemed, would be that.
But then comes the power of social media. And the old fashioned press.
“This is craziness!!” wrote one commenter.
“This is horrible,” wrote another.
Others started change.org petitions to bring back the blog. Someone submitted her story to TechDirt, an internet site that addresses issues of online censorship by businesses and government. Still others questioned whether the censorship was a violation of human rights. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver tweeted his encouragement, and asked his millions of followers to retweet their support. British newspapers also got into the action, with minute by minute coverage and columnists penning their disbelief.
By this afternoon UK time, the Council had changed its position. According to the BBC, Scotland’s education secretary, Mike Russell, wrote to the council’s chief executive and called for the “daft” ban to be overturned.
Meanwhile, the pledges to Mary Meals through Payne’s site skyrocketed to £16,000.
And Payne, it appears, has been given the green light to continue her photo documentation.
So bring on the mac n' cheese. We'll be watching.