Jamie Oliver, celebrity TV chef, suggests that ministers are ignoring research showing that nutritious lunches improve learning and fears that his school meals revolution campaign that he started is in danger of unravelling.
Jamie said in an interview with the Guardian, that the health secretary, Andrew Lansley and education secretary, Michael Grove, are dangerously putting at risk the changes and efforts that happened after Jamie’s School Dinner, his 2005 channel 4 series.
There is unease among education and health campaigners, after some of the decisions that Grove has made on school meals. Grove has ended the grant for school lunches as a separate basis of funding and exempted academies from the nutritional standards for all other state schools that was introduced by Labour, after Oliver’s programmes pointed out the poor quality of much school food.
Jamie said, “Honestly, I’m very worried. I’ve had a couple of very cordial, interesting meetings with the secretary of state for education and although I would love to believe that Mr Gove has school food high on his agenda, I’ve not heard anything so far worth celebrating”.
“I’m sure he realises that there are clear benefits to having good food in school: it improves a child’s behaviour, willingness to learn and concentration at school, and that in turn helps children to achieve more and perform better.
“You would have to be an idiot to ignore all of the academic research that’s been published to support these things, but still I don’t see him or his ministerial colleagues in health actually doing anything to ensure that the improvements we have made over the last six years remain in place and are built upon – instead the progress we’ve made seems to be at risk.”
He also added that, “I used to have similar rants about the previous government so I’m absolutely not siding with one political party. In my experience forward-thinking politicians are a rare breed.”
When Jamie was asked if the government’s decisions were due to ideology or the spending squeeze, he replied “I think it’s a bit of both but as anyone in this area knows, we have to invest now so that we don’t cripple the NHS or destroy the health of our kids later on”.
It is estimated that obesity already costs around £4bn a year for the NHS. Jamie said, “We simply can’t afford to cut costs in prevention work now because we will have an even bigger bill in the future. It’s like any business: you have to invest in the short term to see a longer-term benefit.”
Jamie made a suggestion to introduce a new school food premium, which would provide schools with direct payments for increasing the number of pupils having school lunches. Approximately 3 million of England’s 7 million secondary and primary school pupils eat them.
Charlie Powell of the Children’s Food campaign said, “We are unhappy that the school lunch grant has been amalgamated into the overall education budget because it means schools can spend it on anything they like, rather than increasing uptake of school meals.”
However, the chief executive of the School Food Trust, which lends a hand to help schools improve take-up of meals, said she feared Oliver’s thought could demotivate schools that faced the hardest task in persuading pupils to use the campaign regularly.
As well as campaigning for school meal improvements, Jamie is busy working on his own chain of restaurants and expanding his empire by confirming agreements with suppliers, getting restaurant insurance quotes and hiring more staff.