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Jamie Oliver and the improvement of school food

The recent television programme which has made the most difference to Britain has, I would say, been Jamie Oliver‘s show about school food. I did not see the show myself, but my sister, who used to be a General Practitioner, did see it, and was hugely impressed by it. She has not been the only one, to put it mildly. Never in the field of human cookery will so much be eaten, so differently, by so many, at the behest of just one celebrity chef.

My sister was especially impressed by the bit of his show where Jamie persuaded just one family to change the diet, for just one week, of their extremely troublesome and badly behaved children. The behaviour of the children was utterly transformed! They became nice, companionable people. Even more striking was that, as a treat for having eaten their meat and two veg (or whatever it was) and for behaving so well, the children were given another junk food meal, and they immediately reverted to being their old monstrous selves.

I have two comments to make about this story, beyond observing that it has had an electrifying effect upon Britain’s educrats, and school food providers.

First, it is quite wrong to blame the free market for this sorry episode. In a real free market, schools would fall over themselves to offer good meals rather than bad ones. Insofar as there is something resembling a private sector in British education, it does supply quite nutritious food. (I went to a succession of private sector schools, and the food was pretty good, in the adult sense of being nutritionally good.) When British state schools were instructed, by Margaret Thatcher, to farm out school catering to the lowest bidders, that was an exercise in state diktat, not of the freedom of a free market. In real free markets you are not compelled to buy the cheapest version of what you want. No, you buy what you truly want, and if you choose to buy something good but more expensive, fine. That is your choice.

But when the same old single customer (the government) decides that its purchases shall be obtained from slightly different suppliers, that does not make a free market. One single word, ‘privatisation’, was invented to blur this distinction, the idea being that moves in a free market direction had to be made one small step at a time, and once you have lots of separate school food suppliers, that might make it easier to move towards having lots of genuinely independent schools. And that may even be true. But the distinction thus blurred should nevertheless be insisted upon.

Second, since this is not actually a free market versus state diktat issue, but merely a good food versus bad food issue, then, if like me you agree with my sister that the kind of food Jamie Oliver has been recommending would be an improvement over junk food, then you will welcome the influence he is now having. I agree that a free market in education, as in everything, would be better. But given that education is largely nationalised, it is good, other things being equal, that the inmates of this system should be well fed rather than badly fed.

16 comments to Jamie Oliver and the improvement of school food

  • GCooper

    The issue isn’t ‘privatisation’, it is the amount of money allocated for the provision of school meals or, perhaps even more importantly, whether school meals should be provided at all and, if so, who should pay for them.

    Assuming the general view is that they should, then competitive tendering is a sensible way of ensuring that taxpayers get the best value for their money. If no one is capable of providing acceptable food for the little beasts at the price people are willing to pay, then the price should go up.

    And, of course, it should do so for the parents of the recipients, not the rest of us!

  • The British live in a culture that has never taken food very seriously. The ‘get the kids fed and get them back in the classroom’ attitude is one with obvious problems.
    I am a Brit living in Japan at the moment, working in schools in the southern part of the country. The school food here is incredible. For less than 1 pound a day I get a gloriously healthy meal, different every day (I hardly notice the same meal from month to month more than once). Schools here do not employ ‘dinner ladies’ all food is cooked off site in a central town cooking facility.
    The food arrives, freshly prepared that morning, in huge vacuum containers, thus keeping it hot. Then students themselves don aprons and face masks and dish food out to each other, rotating this job on a daily basis.
    There is no choice for the kids, what you get is what you get, but it is always healthy and interesting consisting of something like a stew, some fish, a rice or bread dish and a vegetable dish.
    Not only do kids not complain, they actively enjoy dishing the food out. This interaction at meal times strenghtens bonds between kids and gives them respect for what they eat.
    And me? I get my dish served up to me every lunchtime and can’t wait to tuck in to its delights. If you want to check out my school dinners then visit my website…
    Jamie Oliver has just tweaked a few political nipples. He hasn’t done anything that any nutritionalist has been screaming for 20 years. My Japanese students would laugh at the fact that it took a celebrity chef to make British people care what their kids were eating. Pure nonsense…

  • Verity

    danieru – your adverbs make you thrillingly unreadable. Is the little ‘ru’ appended to your name to alert the rest of us that you are, like,really, really in the Japanese mindset? Like, totally, there?

  • Johnathan

    Jamie Oliver has probably had more direct influence over our diet than any famous cook since the late, great Elizabeth David. I know his mateyish, Essex lad manner grates on some people, but I have a lot of admiration for the guy. For some reason, he has the same effect on a certain tweedy type as the likes of Jeremy Clarkson. Good on him, I say.

    I attended a state comprehensive and the food, most of the time, was nutritious, if not very interesting. Thank god for my mum.

  • zmollusc

    The whole school meal thing reminds me eerily of my pet cat. The free market swarms with honest and well-meaning suppliers of cat food, all slashing their profits in their zeal to create the healthiest and most nutritious cat food to entice the feline palate. Sadly for Echism, he has no say in what food he gets and I always buy ‘McGrot’s Econ-o-Mog Chunks’ because they are the cheapest.

  • gravud

    Jamie Oliver is a celebrity and thus quite a lot of the population know who he is and his tv cook shows are very open in that he says cooking is “dead easy”. This is why people are paying heed to what he says about food. Show me a nutrionist with that level of fame. I’m not disparaging nutritionists but fame is the key in this instance. ( there’s a pun in there…).
    I know someone who works in schools and the kids are unmanageable for about half an hour after lunch. They changed the school dinners and gave the kids water to drink during class. World of difference apparently. Well behaved kids who are no longer unruly and can concentrate for longer periods.

  • Ron

    I wonder whether there is a similar issue of food-induced violent behaviour with the ingredients used in cheap lagers?

    For example, Stella Artois is commonly known as “Wifebeater”. (Why is Stella THREE times more expensive in pubs than in the supermarket?)

    On the other hand, more expensive beers like Young’s Special London and Fuller’s ESB usually make you sleepy, even though they have a higher alcohol content than most lagers.

  • Ron

    Humph! I meant

    Stella Artois


    Fuller’s ESB

    (the URL in the Bottled Beer Database website Address bar didn’t always change to match each successive search)

  • Schools, with their dinners, are what just about everyone seems determined to call a ‘public service’.

    It seems to me that this is an unfortunate designation of what should, from start to finish, be a matter of private contract.

    As soon as something – the ability to travel from one part of the country to another, whether you can see a specialist doctor, or what kind of education you want for your children, and where – is called a ‘public service’, debate is very effectively circumscribed within certain limits. Deviancy therefrom produces the usual reactions to deviancy from those with closed minds.

    Thus advocates of ‘privatisation’ are on the back foot from the start, because they have already conceded the parameters of acceptable policy-making.

    Still, mustn’t grumble.

  • vivien – if only all our names were as interesting as ‘vivien’ we wouldn’t have to convert them to katakana.
    and since when was over using adverbs to describe Jamie Oliver a crime? i heard they were going to name a completely new school dinner adverb after Jamie in respect of his achievments.
    here’s hoping it gets over used a lot, otherwise our kids are in real trouble

  • “But given that education is largely nationalised, it is good, other things being equal, that the inmates of this system should be well fed rather than badly fed.”

    But how can other things be equal when the money to pay for school meals is being taken from other taxpayers?!

    To put another way, we can all agree that for a given expenditure, it is better to provide good meals than bad, but as far as I can tell, the debate is not about providing better meals with the same expenditure, but about spending more money to provide better meals. And surely anything which entails yet more money being fleeced from taxpayers is a bad thing, irrespective of what it is being spent upon?

  • J

    I’d just like to say that danieru calling Verity Vivien is the funniest thing I’ve read all day.

    Back in the olden days it was an unwritten rule of the net that you didn’t comment on people’s handles/nicks/pseudonyms. Obviously not anymore!


  • Cranky Verity!

    I only counted 4 adverbs in danieru’s first post. Not excessive at all.

    I thought danieru’s handle was a rather sly mocking of the Japanese (mis)pronunciation.

  • lucklucky

    Did you believed it?! hahaha!

  • DaveB

    That’s a very good point about the free market not being responsible for the state of school dinners. A recent report showed that some schools built under the Private Finance Initiative had to sign 25 year contracts to catering companies – hardly a free market!

  • DaveB

    That’s a very good point about the free market not being responsible for the state of school dinners. A recent report showed that some schools built under the Private Finance Initiative had to sign 25 year contracts to catering companies – hardly a free market!