I MADE a vegetarian shepherd’s pie this week (or ‘shepherd-less’ since it was meat-free) and it had the aroma of a school dinner.

There’s nothing like an aroma to take you back. I was reminded of watery mashed potato, tasteless carrots and some indefinable greyish meat. On a good day there was cheese flan, cut into squares, or Spam fritters (deep fried was/is the only way to eat Spam).

But more often than not, school dinner was a scoop of mash, soggy veg and the inevitable slice of dull meat. I adored the dinner ladies at primary school, and still remember their names, but they were no nonsense when it came to food waste. We had to eat what was on our plate, even when they gave us something evil - liver - one day, which prompted lots of crying. I discreetly cut some of mine into tiny pieces to drop under my chair, placing the rest in the side of my mouth, where it remained through pudding. I later spat it out over the railings. I’d got away with it - and a decade later I was vegetarian.

While enough time has passed for me to look back fondly on school dinners, I’ve not forgotten how awful they were, particularly the milk puddings which I’ve never been able to stomach since. But I’m thankful for those hot midday meals - and it was the city I grew up in that pioneered them. In 1907 Bradford Council became the first local authority to provide free school meals, responding to child poverty concerns and the argument by education pioneers that children could not learn if they were starving.

It’s an argument that still stands. As Marcus Rashford has pointed out, it is “impossible for children to learn and to develop in a school environment if they’re hungry and don’t have the right foods”.

The footballer’s campaigning to ensure that no child goes hungry triggered a parliamentary debate this week, during which the Government was urged to “step up” and tackle child food poverty. Catherine McKinnell MP told MPs that Rashford’s petition, signed by more than 1.1 million people, has three key asks of the Government - to provide meals and activities during school holidays, to expand free school meals to all under 16-year-olds whose parents are receiving benefits, and to increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers and expand the scheme.

Ms McKinnell referenced research by the Food Foundation charity which found an estimated 14 per cent of households, including 2.3 million children, experienced food insecurity in the six months following the start of the March 2020 lockdown, compared to 11.5 per cent before the pandemic.

School meals are as vital as ever, but the food that is served up is under debate too. Some campaigners wants schools to offer a compulsory plant-based menu one day a week, reflecting dietary advice and climate change concerns. And there are some calls to cut the choice entirely and make school meals vegetarian only, replacing the current non-mandatory recommendation for a weekly meat-free day with a statutory daily veggie menu. I’m all for it. I think children get too much choice - I was astonished at the school menus my nephews had as youngsters, which consisted largely of pizza, pasta and burgers. What, no liver or watery mash?

Cutting the choice and going meat-free is a healthy way forward for school meals. People eat far too much meat and the mass production of it, on an enormous industrial scale, is not just an animal welfare issue, for those of us who care about such things, it’s an environmental crisis - which is something everyone should care about.