Are packed lunches the ‘biggest evil’?

After school dinners, Jamie Oliver is turning his attention to 'shit' packed lunches. The message seems clear: parents can’t be trusted to feed their kids properly.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

There’s no doubting the popularity of Jamie Oliver right now. Having previously been the often-lambasted frontman for a laddish food culture, he has reinvented himself as social entrepreneur by training unemployed kids at his restaurant Fifteen – and his ascension to secular sainthood was confirmed by last year’s TV crusade, Jamie’s School Dinners.

The result of the Channel 4 series was an extra £280million from the government to be spent over three years, increasing food budgets to 50p per head in primary schools and to 60p per head in secondary schools. Many parents seem to believe that school meals are now better than before. A BMRB poll reported in the UK Observer suggests that three-quarters of parents think school grub has improved, and almost half think Oliver was the biggest factor in changing things.

However, the results of this poll are at odds with parents’ actual response to the TV series – and Jamie is not a happy bunny. Far from increasing uptake of school meals, the series seems to have put many parents off them completely – even in areas where ‘healthy’ options have been introduced. This fall in numbers taking school dinners is not so surprising, however, if one recalls the overblown horror stories Oliver cooked up (see Hard to swallow, by Rob Lyons).

For example, officials in Gloucestershire, one of the first to make the switch to healthier dinners, have watched the numbers of primary school children taking meals falling from 11,600 to 9,800 out of a total of 40,000 pupils. The biggest decrease was in Suffolk, where the total number of school meals served last year fell from 19,000 to 13,000. In the country as a whole, 400,000 children have reportedly turned their backs on school meals – a 12.5 per cent fall. There are now concerns that with so few children taking hot meals, the service may soon cease to be viable (1).

Many parents are choosing to send their kids to school with packed lunches instead. Kevin McKay, chair of the Local Authority Caterers Association, told the Independent on Sunday: ‘People’s perception of meals is what they saw on TV. Many authorities were already doing healthy meals. They also saw a decrease. More and more children are now bringing their own packed lunches in, which have been proved to be not as healthy.’ (2)

Jamie Oliver was more forthright. Packed lunches ‘are the biggest evil. Even the best packed lunch is a shit packed lunch’, he declared (3). A bog-standard packed lunch apparently consists of a white bread sandwich, a packet of crisps, a chocolate bar and a fizzy drink – just the kind of low-fibre, high-salt and high-sugar combination that sends the food police apoplectic.

Thankfully, packed lunches are not (yet) under the control of government inspectors, and so parents have control over what goes into them. And given that parents aren’t around during school hours to force their kids to eat things they don’t like, it’s no wonder they tend to play safe and make sure the boxes are full of stuff that will be eaten. Parents have to make a judgement call on these kind of things – and it is precisely that judgement which is called into question by the likes of Oliver.

He seems to think that parents cannot be trusted to feed their kids properly. Jamie’s School Dinners featured plenty of asides about how we must feed children better at school because we don’t know what they get at home. And Oliver is not alone. There has always been a school of thought in authority that looked down on the efforts of parents – particularly working-class parents – to bring their children up in the appropriate manner. However, having battered us into submission with panics about obesity and educational underachievement caused by additives and malnutrition, parents are more open to such intervention into their parenting behaviour than ever before.

It must be a source of considerable wonderment to Oliver that human beings survived for thousands of years without olive oil and broccoli. In fact, true nutritional deficiency is very rare in Britain today. Even so-called ‘junk’ food contains plenty of protein, vitamins and minerals – and just to be on the safe side vitamins are added to all sorts of foods, from breakfast cereals to sugary drinks. For all the furore about food, children eat better now than ever before.

It is true that children are getting fatter on average than in the past, but the numbers involved and the risks associated with obesity are hotly contested (4). The diminishing opportunities for independent exercise and play must be at least as important in that process as the food children eat.

Getting children to eat better food is no bad thing. But for Oliver and others, there seems to be only one right way to raise children. Parents who haven’t provided their kids with five portions of fruit and veg a day, or who insist on providing convenience food over home-cooked organic meals, are increasingly seen as deficient.

While Oliver bangs on about re-introducing compulsory cooking lessons to schools, the real lesson of the day is that experts are keen to butt into the most basic aspects of our lives, even how we feed our children. We should tell them to get lost – and when it comes to schools, we should be worrying far more about the paltry fare being dished up in classrooms than what children are scoffing in the canteen.

Read on:

School meals – get real, by Jennie Bristow

Fat chance of making kids healthier, by Rob Lyons

(1) Jamie is back on the offensive over school dinners, Independent, 2 April 2006

(2) Jamie is back on the offensive over school dinners, Independent, 2 April 2006

(3) Jamie is back on the offensive over school dinners, Independent, 2 April 2006

(4) See Fat and fiction, by Peter Marsh

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Topics Politics


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