LONDON — What 9-year-old Martha Payne has for lunch at school on Monday has become of interest to thousands of people — perhaps even millions.
The girl’s blog, NeverSeconds, chronicles the low points (“sausage and bean pita pocket”) and even some high points (“macaroni and cheese”) of school lunches, complete with photos.
But last week, a local government council in her home town in western Scotland banned photography in her school’s cafeteria, effectively putting an end to her wildly popular project. And as is often the case, the reaction seems to have drawn even more attention to Martha and the subject of her school lunch.
Under rules introduced over the past decade for British public schools, junk food is banned in vending machines, salt shakers are no longer allowed on lunch tables and deep-fried foods are strictly limited.
But the photos on Martha’s blog suggest room for improvement.
Martha, an aspiring journalist, began the blog in late April as a writing project with her father. With permission from her teachers, she posted photos of her school lunches alongside commentary on each meal’s tastiness, nutritional value, the number of mouthfuls it took to eat it and whether any hairs had been found.
Some of the photos were “shocking to adults — my kids didn’t bat an eyelid — and I think that’s why the blog took off,” Martha’s father, David, said in an interview.
Soon, readers from as far away as the United States and Taiwan began sending in photos of lunches that often appeared more edible than Martha’s.
Then on May 25 Martha wrote: “It happened today! As we lined up for lunch we were officially told that we are all allowed as much salad, fruit and bread as we want and that we had always been able to . . . well my friends and I never knew that. It must have been a well kept secret.”
The council insists it hasn’t made any tweaks to the school meals based on the blog.
With a month left until summer vacation, it seemed like Martha’s project would come to a screeching halt after she wrote a post on Thursday simply titled “Goodbye,” explaining that she had been pulled out of her math class and told to stop taking photos of her school meals.
In a lengthy statement Friday morning, the council defended the ban, saying all the media attention had left the kitchen staff fearful of losing their jobs. The council also said Martha’s photos misrepresented the variety of food offered at the school.
What happened next was not only a tribute to the power of social media, but also spoke volumes about Britons’ natural instinct to snub their noses at preaching officials.
So many people jumped on Twitter on Friday that Martha was trending worldwide. The number of hits on the blog leapt from 2 million Friday morning to more than 5 million by Saturday evening.
Many people tweeted photos of their own lunch in support of the schoolgirl. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver jumped into the fray, tweeting to his 2.3 million followers, “Stay strong Martha.”
Others chimed in with school-lunch horror stories. Writing on the Daily Telegraph’s Web site, Lucie Rose Fielding, 15, from Salisbury, described a recent lunch themed for the queen’s Diamond Jubilee as “simply tragic.” The dyed pasta didn’t help.
Amid the torrent of bad publicity, the council swiftly revoked the ban.
Speaking to the BBC on Friday afternoon, the council’s leader, Roddie McCuish, said: “There’s no place for censorship in Argyll and Bute Council. There never has been and there never will be.”
“It’s a good thing to do, to change your mind, and I’ve certainly done that,” he added.
Martha intends to be back in action Monday with her family’s Olympus Tough camera.
Martha has used her site to raise money for Mary’s Meals, a charity that helps feed children in poor countries. Before the ban, she had raised about $3,000 for the charity. On Saturday evening, her donation page said she had raised more than $110,000.
“A small thank you isn’t enough so here’s a big THANK YOU to you all!” she wrote.