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Storm in a teacup over girl's school dinner blog

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
June 15, 2012 -- Updated 1616 GMT (0016 HKT)
Through her blog, Martha Payne has raised more than £32,000 ($50,000) for a Scottish charity.
Through her blog, Martha Payne has raised more than £32,000 ($50,000) for a Scottish charity.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Charity: Martha Payne's school dinner blog is raising big sums to feed needy children
  • The local council first banned her from taking pictures of her lunch, then backtracked
  • She rates each school lunch for taste, health and "pieces of hair"
  • Other children from around the world have sent in pictures of their school meals

London (CNN) -- It started as a fun writing project -- 9-year-old Martha Payne decided to blog each day about lunch at her school in Scotland, rating and photographing each meal.

Six weeks and more than 3 million page views later, her "NeverSeconds" blog has become an Internet sensation and provoked a minor political controversy.

The local government body -- the Argyll and Bute Council -- banned her from taking pictures in the dining hall, citing "the unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs."

Its leader backtracked Friday in an interview with BBC radio.

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"There is no place for censorship in Argyll and Bute Council. There never has been and there never will be," said Roddy McCuish, the council chief.

"I have just instructed senior officials to withdraw the ban on pictures in the school dining hall. It's a good thing to change your mind, and I have certainly done that."

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Introducing her blog, which started at the end of April, Martha writes: "My dad says I should call myself Veritas Ex Gustu, truth from tasting in Latin but who knows Latin? You can call me Veg."

She then details her daily lunches, carefully scoring for taste, health rating, number of mouthfuls -- and "pieces of hair" (usually none).

Other children from around the world -- U.S. students among them -- soon started to e-mail her their own school lunch descriptions and photos.

On May 10, Martha wrote excitedly: "Big news, I have gone viral! 105,000 people have visited my blog and thanks to all of you. Even bigger news my dad got a tweet from Jamie Oliver! 'Shocking but inspirational blog. Keep going, Big love from Jamie x'."

Oliver, a celebrity chef, famously launched a one-man campaign to improve the food fed to Britain's schoolchildren through his 2005 TV series "Jamie's School Dinners."

Through her blog, Martha has raised more than £32,000 ($50,000) for a Scottish charity, Mary's Meals, which, she quotes her grandpa as saying, "feeds over 600,000 children in 16 countries, including Malawi, Liberia, Kenya and Haiti."

The sum, far more than her original £7,000 target, is enough to set up a new kitchen at a Malawi school and feed all its 2,000 pupils for a whole school year, said Abeer Macintyre, a Mary's Meals spokeswoman.

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The charity is "flabbergasted" by the response to Martha's blog -- and delighted to see the donations on the schoolgirl's Just Giving page shoot up by thousands of pounds in a day, she told CNN

"We are wondering where it might end and how many children are going to be fed as a result of Martha and her supporters," she said, adding that the Payne family were long-term backers of the charity.

Mary's Meals' determination to make sure as much money as possible is turned into food for the world's neediest children means it doesn't spend money on advertising, so the exposure through Martha's blog is a great way to raise global awareness, she said.

"There are thousands of children's lives that will be changed today because of this," she said.

But Martha's entries this week began to attract more interest than Argyll and Bute Council seemed comfortable with.

In her final entry, posted Thursday, Martha writes: "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.

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"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."

Her father, Dave Payne, posted that it was the council, rather than the school, that had stepped in to stop his daughter's efforts.

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"It is a shame that a blog that today went through 2 million hits, which has inspired debates at home and abroad and raised nearly £2000 for charity is forced to end," he wrote the same day.

The response from some of Martha's more than 34,000 followers was swift, with more than 1,100 comments by lunchtime local time Friday.

Bridget McArthur, a 47-year-old mother of three from Minnesota, said she had personally e-mailed Argyll and Bute Council demanding a change of heart.

"I want you to know that I feel your decision to ban 9-year old VEG from posting photos of her lunches on the blog Never Seconds is appalling," she wrote. "There is only one motivation for this decision; self-preservation. She is eloquent, smart, engaging, generous, and passionate. The world has been enjoying reading her colorful blog. How refreshing it has been to see someone this young find her voice and discover she can make a difference. Did you even pay attention to the money she is raising for charity?"

Another, naming herself as Colleen in the USA, wrote: "I am so sorry to hear this. It seems to me that a girl ought to be able to take a photo of her lunch, and have a blog about it."

Others talk about how Martha's blog has raised the issue of the kind of food presented to children at school worldwide -- as well as the plight of those who can only hope to eat while studying.

"I know writing a daily blog is a pretty big expectation for your age, but please don't end this entirely," writes Jaylah Priest.

"Seriously Veg, the world needs your voice. Don't let a couple of frightened adults silence you."

A statement on the Argyll and Bute Council website Friday promises to hold a "school meals summit" later this summer that will bring together pupils, council officials and school catering staff to "get this issue right."

"By so doing Martha Payne and her friends will have had a strong and lasting influence not just on school meals, but on the whole of Argyll & Bute," it says.

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CNN's Melissa Abbey contributed to this report.

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