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25 February 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Making a meal out of school dinners
Jamie Oliver’s campaign for better grub for schoolkids promotes modern prejudices about food.

by Rob Lyons

Having converted some London urchins into talented chefs for his restaurant Fifteen, mockney geezer Jamie Oliver is now aiming to make school dinners nutritious.

And, of course, there's a TV series to accompany the attempt. Jamie's School Dinners follows the Naked Chef as he tries to produce a decent repast with a food budget of roughly 37p per child (1). Not a simple task.

Episode one, broadcast on 23 February, highlighted the current state of school canteen fare. The cooks at Kidbrooke School in Greenwich didn't so much lovingly prepare food as open boxes of it. Frozen chips, grey frozen disks (burgers apparently), and frozen fish fingers made from reconstituted white fish mince, were dumped into metal trays and cooked in ovens.

The kids, being kids, lapped it up. Most of them ate burger and chips, or stodgy pizza and chips, most days of the week. Jamie was appalled. But it soon became clear that he didn't have the first clue about mass catering, a point brought home to him by head cook Nora, half battleaxe, half naughty schoolgirl, who was a good deal more sensible and entertaining than the celeb chef.

Nora and Jamie both cook food, but they operate in parallel universes. While Nora had a nervous but entertaining day at Fifteen, learning how to chop food properly, Jamie fell flat on his face in the school kitchen. His food took too long to cook, the kids turned their noses up at it (or picked the vegetables out), and it was three times too expensive. Even the ever-chipper Oliver started to get pissed off.

Improving school dinners would be a good thing. Since the Tories started to cut back on the provision of school dinners in the 1980s, budgets and staffing have fallen, and catering companies have been reduced to providing lowest common denominator meals. They may not be adventurous or particularly nutritious, but at least the kids eat them.

But something else is going on, too: the dumbing down of eating. Rather than force children to try new things on the basis that we adults know what's good for them, kids are left to choose what they want. Inevitably, they go for the salt, sugar and fat every time. Some balance has to be struck between training taste buds - which is why 'eat your greens' is a meal-time mantra for most parents - and getting the little buggers to eat enough to stay healthy and active.

Oliver is entirely sold on the food values of our time. His campaign manifesto states: 'A lunchtime school dinner should give kids a third of their daily nutrition requirements. That's why it should be packed with not only fresh produce, but all the proteins, minerals and vitamins needed for health and growth. Diet also affects kids' behaviour, their physical and mental development, and their ability to learn - another good reason to ban the junk and go fresh and tasty.' (2)

It is a fallacy that there was some 'golden age' of school dinners
But there is little difference in nutrients between fresh and frozen food. Even the 'junk' food contains plenty of protein, minerals and vitamins. The suggestion that frozen chips don't contain vitamin C, for example, is just plain wrong - a portion of chips cooked from frozen has considerably more vitamin C and fibre than an apple (3).

Diet can affect development if kids are malnourished, but that simply isn't the case in Britain. The discussion of the relationship between diet and behaviour is highly contentious.

The other fallacy is that there was some 'golden age' of school dinners. There may have been more variety in the past, but it was still stodge. We fondly remember the puddings: apple crumble, or the chocolate rice crispie things that disintegrated into your custard. But my school's foul-tasting braised liver put me off the idea of trying paté for years; and if burgers today are of dubious origin, god knows what went into a 'steaklet'.

For a whole year, I skipped the school canteen in favour of the general store across the road. My lunch at school consisted of ham on a white roll, a packet of Monster Munch and a can of pop - every day. This was a positive boon compared with my mate, who subsisted on two packets of cheese and onion crisps, a Mars bar and a can of coke (his teeth have seen better days).

Better school dinners would be nice - but shouldn't we be more concerned about better schools full stop? In that respect, Jamie Oliver's address to the school assembly on his first day - along the lines of, 'Err.. nice one... big love to the teachers and the dinner ladies... err... thanks for having me... so, yeah, like, err... nice one' - hardly created a shining example to students of English.

In fact, there's something galling about Oliver riding in to save our kids; it stinks of being a moral entrepreneur. Maybe he does think he's doing it for the love of food and good health - but the TV series, spin-off book and the image shift from mockney cook to community-minded family man won't do him any harm either. In the process, however, he is evangelising middle-class celebrity obsessions that are as vacuous as Cherie Blair's crystals or Jennifer Aniston's latest diet.

If Jamie Oliver succeeds in getting Thai green curry and foccacia on to the school menu, fine. But the thought of him promoting his modern prejudices at the same time is enough to put you right off your dinner.

(1) Jamie's School Dinners, Channel 4

(2) Feed Me Better

(3) National Chip Week, Waitrose, 7 February 2005

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