Jamie still mixing it over school meals

JUST as Labour ministers learned quickly not to cross actress Joanna Lumley and her spirited Gurkha campaign, the coalition would be well advised to embrace Jamie Oliver’s call for the Government to invest in school meals.

Oliver, who lives near Saffron Walden, famously shamed Tony Blair into a review of school meals nutrition and choice after he revealed the contents of children’s favourite junk foods.

New figures show that more than four in ten (41.4%) of primary age children are now eating school lunches, up from 39.3% last year.

The School Food Trust (SFT) and the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) also reported that there had been a minimal rise in secondary schools, where 35.8% of children are now eating school meals, up from 35% in 2008/09.

Oliver said he was “massively encouraged” by the new figures, which he said showed the hard work of dinner ladies, teachers, parents and the School Food Trust, “even with stretched resources’’.

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But he stressed it was important that the figure kept rising.

“Some people in government might look at the figures and think that it’s now time to take the foot off the gas because it’s a success story,’’ he said.

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“That would be completely wrong. Now is the time to move up a gear. This is the time for both education and health departments to invest in those schools who still have problems with lack of training for dinner ladies or who suffer from having a dining area that’s too small or uninviting.

“Now is the time to ensure that life skills education, including teaching kids how to grow food and cook it from fresh, is compulsory for all primary and secondary school kids.

“Investment now saves lives and NHS billions in the future. We can’t allow anything to slow this down.

“When I started working on school food, I always said it would be a 10 to 13-year plan and we’re only a third of the way through. You don’t change decades of neglect in a handful of years but we need governments to think long term and not just to the next election.’’

An extra 320,980 pupils in England are eating school dinners, the biggest year-on-year increase since the school meals revolution began.

It was kick-started by Oliver who ran a campaign five years ago for better quality school dinners.

After Oliver’s campaign won huge public support, the Government banned junk food from school canteens and vending machines and in 2006 new rules to make food healthier were introduced in English schools.

Strict nutritional guidelines were made compulsory in primary schools in 2008, and the same was introduced in secondaries last September.

Yesterday’s survey is based on information provided by 152 local authorities across England.

The findings show that school dinners cost an average of �1.83 in primary schools and �1.94 in secondaries - a 3% increase on 2008-09.

SFT chairman Rob Rees said: “The number of children eating school meals had been on a downward spiral for many years when Jamie Oliver brought the issue into the nation’s living room, leading to even more children and parents turning their backs on canteens.

“Following the introduction of national standards for meals and the hard work to improve the dining room experience for children, this is being reversed - disproving the myth that children simply don’t want to eat healthy food.

“However, the number of children eating school meals is still in the minority so the School Food Trust, schools, caterers, local authorities and cooks have a huge amount to do before we can say the school meals revolution is complete.’’

Education Secretary Michael Gove would be unwise if he tried to grapple with Jamie Oliver, because the public would back the cheeky chef every time.

Gove didn’t exactly cover himself in glory this week when his Building Schools for the Future statement contained errors over which schools were being allowed to continue with long planned rebuilding work.

But at least Gove went to the Commons and apologised for releasing the wrong information. The error would have been a civil service cock-up, but he took responsibility - something Labour ministers never did.

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