Local council silences 9 year old food blogger

Summary:Citizen journalism isn't necessarily limited to adults. What happens when a young child exposes the quality of school lunches online?

A nine year old school girl from the UK has been forced to close down her popular blog due to a local council's intervention.

A student from West Scotland, Martha Payne, aka "VEG", ran a blog that documented her school meals with a commentary in May this year. The blog, titled "Never Seconds", quickly became a popular hotspot for debate and review of the school's food and what is on offer for school children in general.

Racing past the two million page view mark, what probably started as a pet project went viral, and even became popular globally -- Martha receiving images of alternative school dinners from fans as far away as Taiwan.

The posted images of school means and commentary included a rating system:

Food-o-meter- Out of 10 a rank of how great my lunch was! Mouthfuls- How else can we judge portion size! Courses- Starter/main or main/dessert Health Rating- Out of 10, can healthy foods top the food-o-meter? Price- Currently £2 I think, its all done on a cashless catering card Pieces of hair- It wont happen, will it?

If you follow the progress of the blog, it does seem that the school was tracking the media and online community attention. Originally, her school lunches were like this:

Then things changed, as one entry shows:

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Today was very different at lunchtime. Dad had already told me beforehand that some people from the Council were coming to lunch with a reporter from our local paper. There was also a new system for ordering food which I'll explain when I understand it more. I didn't see the visitors having lunch but I saw them hovering about and watching us getting served.

The attention of the media and an online hit later, the council swoops in. Taken out of class by her head teacher, Martha was told she was now banned from taking photos because of a published newspaper story about the blog. In her goodbye entry she writes:

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. I don’t think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen for Mary’s Meals either.

Adding context to the ban, her father Dave also continued the entry:

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.

The council may have had their way, but there is a silver lining.

Once the site became popular, Martha and her father used the attention to ask for donations to a charity for school food in Africa. At the time of writing, even though the closing statement on the blog doubted they would reach their target, the original £7,000 donation has been surpassed and reached £8,119.40.

Apart from this achievement, the online attention also kicked the school into offering free salad, fruit and bread.

Considering the poor quality of the meals when the blog began -- and how much they coincidentally improved in such a short space of time -- local authorities had the right to be worried. It seems that our tech-savvy younger generation and enthusiastic parents could expose just what goes on in some schools, but shutting down the project will only result in even more questions being asked.

Exposure, panic, shut it down. If television shows about school meals and vague promises of improvement don't work, why don't we all give our kids a camera?

Update 1 (13:30 BST): Argyll and Bute Council has issued a statement in relation to the blog. It reads (emphasis mine, of course):

"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 has directly avoided any criticism of anyone involved in the ‘never seconds’ blog for obvious reasons despite a strongly held view that the information presented in it misrepresented the options and choices available to pupils however this escalation means we had to act to protect staff from the distress and harm it was causing.

In particular, the photographic images uploaded appear to only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils, so a decision has been made by the council to stop photos being taken in the school canteen.

There have been discussions between senior council staff and Martha’s father however, despite an acknowledgement that the media coverage has produced these unwarranted attacks, he intimated that he would continue with the blog.

The council has had no complaints for the last two years about the quality of school meals other than one from the Payne family received on 6 June and there have been no changes to the service on offer since the introduction of the blog."

Update 2 (14:32 BST): After two hours, the hashtag #neverseconds began trending on Twitter, and Martha's charity campaign reached the £18,000 milestone. The council reversed their decision live on BBC Radio.

Topics: IT Employment

About

Charlie Osborne, a medical anthropologist who studied at the University of Kent, UK, is a journalist, freelance photographer and former teacher. She has spent years travelling and working across Europe and the Middle East as a teacher, and has been involved in the running of businesses ranging from media and events to B2B sales. Charli... Full Bio

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