Jamie Oliver: what a ‘tosser’
St Jamie's school-dinners crusade returns tonight, providing yet another unhealthy serving of food fears with a side order of parent-bashing bile.
The man in the checked shirt wobbles towards the bus, ice-cream cone in hand, not sure whether to keep licking or run faster. Then disaster strikes: he drops the cone. As he looks down in horror, the bus pulls away. Unperturbed, the fat feckless fuck scoops up the ice-cream from the ground and stuffs it in his mouth.
The man in the checked shirt is Jamie Oliver, all padded up in a fat suit. And the scene is the trailer for the latest phase in his ‘school meals revolution’, Jamie’s Return to School Dinners, which airs tonight on Channel 4. The implication is that unless we all respond to Jamie’s call to arms, we’re ignorant scum condemning many of today’s children to a life of disabling obesity and chronic ill-health.
Giving children the option to eat relatively fresh and nutritious food during the school day is an attractive one. But Oliver’s crusade is based on distortions about the quality and importance of children’s diets, and a contempt for any parent who doesn’t fit in with his idea of how they should be raising their kids.
This contempt no doubt extends to Julie Critchlow and Sam Walker, two mums who have started a ‘junk food’ run for kids at a school in Rotherham, northern England. They’re taking orders and cash through the school fence and returning with food from local takeaways. ‘This is all down to Jamie Oliver. I just don’t like him and what he stands for’, Walker told the Sun. The Sun, never afraid to take a cheap shot, described the women as ‘junk mothers’ who exhibit ‘the kind of feeble parenting that turns kids into fat, lethargic burger addicts in the first place’ (1). Oliver is not the only one who thinks that parents who won’t toe the line are neglecting their kids.
In tonight’s programme, Oliver doesn’t hold back. ‘I’ve spent two years being PC about parents. It’s kind of time to say if you’re giving very young kids bottles and bottles of fizzy drink you’re a fucking arsehole, you’re a tosser. If you’ve giving bags of shitty sweets at that very young age, you’re an idiot.’
The programme demonstrates that running a one-man revolution is hard work. In Lincolnshire (a relatively poor farming county) he discovers that many children aren’t offered hot meals at all because school kitchens were closed under the last Conservative government. He tries to get local businesses to fill the gap – and then discovers that even those model ‘healthy schools’ he set up down south are running into problems. Kidbrooke School in the London borough of Greenwich, the place where it all started in the first series of Jamie’s School Dinners, is losing thousands of pounds because it no longer sells crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks at break times. The kids buy their treats on the way to school, handing their money to local shops rather than the school. The extra government money provided after the last series is insufficient to cover the shortfall.
Oliver seems to spend his whole time firefighting. Up in Lincolnshire, he arranges for a local pub to provide meals to nearby primary schools. That means mass catering in a totally unsuitable kitchen before parents and taxi drivers deliver the food to the schools. Unsurprisingly, hygiene standards at the pub are well below what would be expected in a school, the food quality suffers as the chef tries to eke out a profit, and parents drop out as their initial enthusiasm fades. In the end, the pub pulls out, no doubt thinking they needed the whole loss-making operation and bad publicity like a hole in the head.
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Oliver makes his life a lot harder by his prejudices about processed food and local production. Why a Panini filled with meat and a couple of sprigs of basil is any better in terms of nutrition than a ham sandwich made with white sliced bread is never explained. He insists on emphasising small and local provision – even when it is clearly unsuitable – over trying to persuade the big caterers with their economies of scale to alter what they provide. The whole operation is doomed to be unprofitable, so businesses quickly lose interest. His schemes only keep going because dinner ladies work unpaid overtime – which they eventually tire of, considering that even when they’re getting paid, it is only the measly minimum wage.
So Oliver’s tone becomes increasingly intolerant. He is unable to comprehend why others are not as motivated as he is. ‘This is not the Jamie Oliver show, this is not a fucking pantomime.… I’m here because I truly care. I’ve got other shit to do’, he says. When a mother drops out of the Lincolnshire pub scheme because her little boy isn’t keen on the pasta and rice served up, Oliver suggests dismissively that they have a chat with the nutritionist who came up with the menus, implying that she was letting her son down. And when a young teacher is found with some junk food ‘contraband’ in her bag, he charmingly suggests: ‘That’s no way to live, darling. You’ve got to have some pride in yourself.’
Oliver’s crusade is the product of the panic over obesity and children’s diets and his campaign only helps to stoke these fears further. Far from being an unwelcome critic, he is helpfully touting the New Labour line on food, health and the inadequacies of parents. No wonder that when he meets Tony Blair at the end of the latest programme, Blair says he will happily extend the increased funding for school dinners for another three years. Oliver leaves triumphant, perhaps forgetting that at the start of the show he was moaning that the same amount of money was inadequate.
If we were facing an impending health disaster, changing the kind of meals children are served during the school year would make little impact. But in fact, as we’ve noted elsewhere on spiked, no such disaster looms. A diet of Turkey Twizzlers, chips and beans is not perfect, but it is perfectly adequate. Oliver’s horror stories about children vomiting their own faeces and dying en masse before their parents have no basis in reality (2).
As for adult eating habits, they are not determined in the school canteen. Children have always been rather conservative eaters who prefer all the ‘wrong’ foods, yet experience shows that they still grow up healthy and that their tastes mature. If our childhood eating habits mattered that much, most of us would have long since perished. What Oliver fails to comprehend is that he could provide haute cuisine and lots of kids would still refuse. Rejecting school meals in favour of bunking off down the chip shop is just another minor act of teenage rebellion.
While Oliver has been received with almost universal praise in the media, there are signs of a backlash from catering staff sick of working longer hours and parents sick of being lectured on how to bring up their kids (3). If the Rotherham example is anything to go by, maybe eating junk food will become more than teenage rebellion – perhaps it’s a way for parents to tell the patronising ‘tosser’ where to go, too.
‘Sinner ladies’: the fantasy and reality, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Sinner ladies sell kids junk food, Sun, 16 September 2006; Junk mothers, Sun, 16 September 2006
(2) Hard to swallow, by Rob Lyons
(3) See Jamie leaves a nasty aftertaste, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 8 May 2006