If you were unaware of a piece of legislation passed recently, you would be instantly forgiven. Without the slightest pomp or fanfare, long established laws are tweaked and tampered with every day. But one particular measureis set to cause grave concerns for the Hindu population of this country, and especially to every Hindu school.
It was in 2005 when we first began to hear Jamie Oliver complaining about how unhealthy school lunches actually were. Many school kitchens have willingly overhauled their methods; baking instead of frying, steaming instead of boiling; replacing processed with fresh. Since improved academic results have been attributed to improved eating habits, the government has supported the revolutionin school meals at every opportunity.
But, all is not as it seems – as I found out to my dismay at a meeting with the Department for Education on 5th September. I attended the meeting representing Hindu Council UK, along with Nitesh Gor, Chief Executive of the Avanti Schools Trust. We were told that on January 2015, schools will be forced to serve meat, fish and eggs – with no exception for Hindu schools. As a Diversity & Equality consultant and lawyer, you can imagine my disbelief and outrage when I heard that this policy had been passed into law without even giving ‘Due regard’ to its impact on people who share a ‘Protected Characteristic’ (being Hindu), which is statutorily required under the Equality Act 2010.
While the most recent set of standards has been produced by a panel of esteemed experts, it’s immediately apparent that an important voice of authority has yet to speak on the issue. The panel appears to offer no representation to persons who take an ethical view of diet; the particular view being vegetarianism and veganism. Not all Hindus follow a strict vegetarian diet but understand that it should be attainable. The balancing of menus does account for a percentage of pupils choosing vegetarian options, but while doing so, it forces schools to cook meat options as its primary fare. Even with the possible good intention of providing nutritional meals, it sorely misses the point- reminding me of the Abrahamic adage ‘that even the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.
How would this sit with pupils of the Hindu faith, many of whom experience eating as well as cookery is itself an act of devotion? Every Hindu temple and school in the UK serves only vegetarian food. For food to be classed as vegetarian, it simply must be prepared, cooked and served in a strictly meat-free environment.
Imagine now the predicament of a state-funded Hindu faith school and the legislation looming for January 2015. Do these schools inform its parents and community that next year, meat, fish and eggs will be served from its once 100% vegetarian kitchen?
The Krishna Avanti Primary School in Harrow is a good example. It was the first Hindu faith school in Britain and is massively popular.The school ethos speaks about respect for the planet and for all living things– universal principles expressed by theists and atheists from all walks of life. Ideas such as this transcend even religious dogma, taking the discussion far away from matters of minority cultures and communities. Forcing a vegetarian Hindu school to cook and serve non-vegetarian food will no doubt infuriate Hindus everywhere, but the same legislation impacts the position of any school that chooses to include ethical, non-violent eating into its ethos.
In 2001, the animal welfare charity Animal Aid conducted a national survey to determine how well vegetarian children of primary and secondary age were catered for at school. The results paint a pitiful picture of complete ignorance towards the needs of vegetarians, and as we’re talking about dependent children here, it won’t fail to invoke sympathy in anyone – regardless of their views on food. One finding that I found of particular interest – for its subtlety more than anything, highlights just how important it is for caterers to appreciate the psychology of a vegetarian:
“Many of the youngsters commented that the catering staff in their school regularly use the same serving tongs to handle both meat and non-meat items, which puts them off eating the food.”
As a finer point, it risks being treated as awkward or fussy behavior, but for children raised as vegetarians, for whom vegetarianism is not a ‘healthy’ option but an ethical lifestyle, introducing non-vegetarian food alongside their food of choice is a frightening thought. The study made by Animal Aid (http://www.animalaid.org.uk/images/pdf/vm02r.pdf ) took in the views of children across the UK:
“I couldn’t bear the thought of an animal being slaughtered on my behalf.” Charlotte from Suffolk
It’s a reminder that vegetarianism is not a peculiarity of certain religious groups, though if the card of religion and belief absolutely must be played, it is perfectly within the rights of a Hindu faith school to do so. According to the Public Sector Equality Duty, a public authority must:
“take steps to meet the needs of persons who share a relevant protected characteristic that are different from the needs of persons who do not share it”
A “protected characteristic” naturally includes race, age, gender and so on, but on an equal footing is religion or belief. In the school community of Krishna Avanti, you have such an example of a protected characteristic – a shared view that life is to be revered, and that this should be applied with particular attention to what we eat. Such a holistic approach to food, its origins, the sustainability of its sources and the way in which we consume it provides an example to schools everywhere.
Drawing upon centuries of vegetarian thinking and practice, Hindu people are indeed a voice of authority on this subject, though its experience and wisdom was sorely lacking from the school food plan (http://www.schoolfoodplan.com). Instead, the legislation was denied the consultation period it deserved, drafted without any obvious input from religious thinkers and now stands as law.
The most important point to note is that no opt-out exists. No matter the credentials of a school – no matter the wealth of knowledge in nutrition, or the essential needs of the schools ‘protected characteristic’ – there is simply no recourse at present but to submit or to risk prosecution. That this school will be subjected to an enforced ruling that non-vegetarian meals must be served will be unthinkable to its staff, pupils and families.
With the likes of Bill Gates and the United Nations literally pleading with humanity to adopt a vegetarian diet, you can expect more and more educators to wake up to the urgency. Hinduism has flown the flag of vegetarianism for millennia – not as an exclusive doctrinal tenet for its followers to obey, but because it makes so much sense.
This law could be seen as an ‘arrogant approach’ by decision makers, not too dissimilar from the ‘Indian Mutiny’, where animal derived coating on ammunitions sparked the revolt. I would call upon the Government and its legislators to see the folly of their ways and its adverse impact on Hindu Schools and community before it is too late and amend this discriminatory law.
Director for Equality & Human Rights
Hindu Council UK