The ‘school meals revolution’: a dog’s dinner

Scare stories about kids eating 'shit' have created a crisis in school dinners. What a shock.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

‘It is about one decent man’s heroic battle against an uncaring, bureaucratic system; about the exploitation of dinner ladies and everybody else who has to struggle away on the front line in a country which no longer values leadership, principles and standards; about the corruption of childhood; and the loss of virtue.’ (1)

So said a columnist in the Daily Telegraph after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his Channel 4 TV campaign – nay, crusade – to rescue British school meals from multinationals, and children from their own bad eating habits and feckless parents. What has been the upshot of Oliver’s ‘heroic battle’? Increased bureaucratic monitoring of parents; fewer children eating school meals; even greater exploitation of dinner ladies; and local authorities struggling to pay for all this new found ‘virtue’.

New rules on meals, including restrictions on vending machines, came into force in September. This week, the BBC reported on the results of a survey conducted in 59 local authorities to find out how they had fared. In 35 of them, fewer children were eating school meals – that is, they are no longer having a hot dinner during the day. Of these, 71 per cent felt that Oliver’s campaign was one of the reasons. As it happens, Oliver is far from being solely responsible. But he has been the most high-profile promoter of an obsession with freshly prepared food, locally-sourced, at the expense of ‘junk’ containing salt, sugar and fat. If he’s happy to accept the plaudits, he should also take a few brickbats.

The fresh-food obsession has been cut-and-pasted into a school meals service that doesn’t do that kind of thing, and which has been in steady decline. With staff not accustomed to actually doing much cooking, instead just heating pre-packed food, the jump to food preparation has been mainly at their expense. Across the country, dinner ladies have been working late and starting early to get everything done – usually without extra pay. This is hardly a surprise. In the original series, Jamie’s School Dinners, his sidekick and long-suffering school cook Nora Sands seemed to have her life taken over by the demands of making and promoting Jamie’s food.

In May this year, spiked‘s Brendan O’Neill interviewed Cathy Stewart, a dinner lady in Hackney in London and a union rep, for the New Statesman. ‘Overnight, we were expected to start seasoning meat and peeling hundreds of carrots – but that takes time and we’re not being paid for it’, said Stewart. ‘They want dinner ladies to become professional chefs. But they won’t give us the resources we need. We have outdated equipment and we don’t have enough staff.’ (2) Stewart was balloting members about industrial action.

When the food is finally ready, many children are turning their noses up at it. It’s not just that the food is unfamiliar – it’s also not actually allowed to taste of anything. In post-Jamie’s School Dinners Britain, salt is treated like nerve poison rather than an essential element of flavour, and is banned from canteen tables. When given a choice, kids have tended to choose the ‘junk’ and vote with their feet against the new options. School caterers in Denbighshire in North Wales found that 40 per cent fewer children ate meals on ‘healthy’ food days (3).

If the kids don’t like the food, they will struggle to find alternative sustenance like crisps and chocolate bars in school. The ban on ‘tuck’, along with the extra costs of ingredients, has been a double whammy for school food budgets. As the follow-up Channel 4 programme, Jamie’s Return to School Dinners, showed at Kidbrooke School, this didn’t stop children from eating sweets and savoury snacks. It simply meant that they bought them on the way to school instead – enriching local shopkeepers and depriving the school of important revenue; a sum that ran well into five figures in Kidbrooke’s case.

In other schools, it is reported that children have set up their own ‘black markets’ in junk food, selling sweets to each other behind the bike sheds or in the toilets, as if they were dealing in deadly substances. This might show that children are as wily as ever when it comes to breaking the rules; it also suggests they are developing a pretty screwed-up attitude to the joys of food in general (see The junk food smugglers).

If the sums are getting uncomfortable at Kidbrooke, they’re downright serious in Denbighshire. A report has warned councillors in the county that the school meals service is ‘no longer financially viable’ after servings were down by 100,000. The service lost £81,000 in the last year – a major blow for a relatively small local authority. Part of the problem was the decision to go for locally-sourced meat – a nice subsidy to farmers which looks like a luxury now that sales are down.

What started out as a crusade has become mired not only in the hubris of Oliver’s fantasy of a ‘school meals revolution’ (replacing chips with ciabatta does not qualify as a revolution) but also in the dumping of every other modern food prejudice into the mix. For one thing, we’ve been forced to listen to Oliver’s tirades against parents and packed lunches (see Jamie Oliver: what a ‘tosser’ and Are packed lunches the ‘biggest evil’? by Rob Lyons). This tirade became a chorus of indignation from all right-thinking newspaper hacks when two mothers started supplying takeaway food to kids at a Rotherham school. The fact that the children were struggling to be fed in the ludicrously short lunchbreak, and didn’t much like the food when they did manage to get it, was simply ignored. Parents getting involved with schools is usually regarded as a wholesome example of community spirit – except when it’s off-message like this.

We also now have the prospect of ‘fat charts’ in schools, where children will be weighed by school staff to see if they are the ‘right weight’ for their age, height and gender (4). Such a measure will effectively institutionalise that age-old trend of bullying the fat kid of the class, where children who fall short of state-imposed waist measurements will be made to feel like outcasts not only by their peers but also by the school system itself. And these fat charts are also yet another example of the undermining of parents’ authority: the clear message is that mums and dads can’t be trusted to keep their children in shape, so the authorities will have to do it.

A significant chunk of the extra millions spent on school meals has actually gone to create the School Food Trust, a quango designed to promote healthy eating (5). Did we really need another body to tell us that kids are getting too fat, or remind us of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins: food facts that every parent should know’? And vilifying the catering giants like Sodexho might provide a thrill for those who hate big corporations, but having handed a swathe of school meals over to them, it might have been easier to take a more constructive approach to working with them.

Jamie Oliver, and the government ministers and journalists who fell at his feet, told us that schools are feeding our children ‘shit’, and today’s children will be the first generation to die before their parents. None of this was based in fact, but unsurprisingly such kneejerk scaremongering has had a negative rather than a positive impact. After Jamie has ridden off on his scooter into the sunset, the school meals service may actually settle down and recover – but only if staff and parents work very hard to fix it while quietly dropping or subverting many of his more nonsensical ideas, and while kicking against that new layer of school-meals bureaucracy that is at least as obsessed with lecturing mums, dads and their children as it is with replacing butter with olive oil.

(1) Outside the Westminster village, heroes struggle to make Britain better, Daily Telegraph, 21 March 2005

(2) Jamie leaves a nasty aftertaste, New Statesman, 8 May 2006

(3) Jamie Oliver ‘sparks slump in demand for school dinners’, Daily Telegraph, 7 November 2006

(4) See Stop bullying fat kids, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(5) School Food Trust website.

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Topics Politics


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