Jamie Oliver started it, and the Children’s Food Trust carried on his work to improve nutritional standards in schools. But the trust is set to lose its government funding – and it could be your children’s health that suffers, says Michael Donlevy
Whatever you think of him, Jamie Oliver’s famous campaign against Turkey Twizzlers brought about a much needed change to the way schools feed our children. It was 2005 when Jamie’s School Dinners highlighted the slop that was served up at lunchtime, and set about replacing it with healthier alternatives.
The Children’s Food Trust was founded in the same year to ‘provide specialist advice, training and support to anyone who provides food for children’. It received government funding to help achieve this, and one of its biggest successes is ‘the only annual, national survey of school food services and take-up of school meals in England.’
This survey, which as well as collecting data aims to promote change, is not in the Department for Education’s plans, even though the work by the trust has helped increase the take-up of more nutritious school meals. ‘The trust’s business plan states it will be self-funding by March 2013,’ a DfE spokesman says. ‘All future activity on school food will be put out to tender and the Children’s Food Trust is welcome to bid for this work.’
The trust is understandably not prepared to ruffle the government’s feathers. A spokesman tells Yano: ‘We’ve been working as an independent charity since October 2011 and planning for the end of our grant funding in March for some time. We now have a broader funding base and we look forward to tendering for future work on school food, children’s nutrition and food education from government as this arises.’
So who is in charge of deciding what our children eat? Education Secretary Michael Gove has put their health in the hands of Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent of ‘healthy fast food’ chain Leon, who have been ‘commissioned to lead a large-scale independent review of school food’, according to the DfE.
This raises several concerns. Look at Leon’s website and the first thing that pops up on your screen is a picture of an enormous burger. Dig a little deeper and it says, ‘When it comes to nutrition, we can best be described as very enthusiastic laymen.’
There’s a funny whiff about this. Why would the government put the crucial matter of our children’s nutritional wellbeing in the hands of a commercial organisation rather than nutritionists, people who are actually qualified to make judgement calls based on science and fact? Perhaps it’s merely coincidence that Dimbleby was schooled at Eton, just like David Cameron. Or perhaps we’re being cynical about where our taxpayers’ money is being spent. Either way, ‘their role is distinctly questionable’, says GP Dr Ian Campbell, who presented to the trust’s annual conference last year.
Oliver has been sidelined, although Dimbleby did tell The Telegraph last year, ‘Jamie – I’ve only met him a few times and somehow I think it’s OK to call him Jamie – has been incredibly helpful. He’s given us loads of ideas, and we’ll continue to get his input along the way.’ He also added, ‘Some people think the school meals thing was fixed by Jamie. But there is a long way to go.’
The Children’s Food Trust agrees. ‘With clear research on the impact of better food on children’s performance at school, obesity levels rising and more families falling into poverty, schools have never been more in need of strong leadership and practical support for making sure every child eats well,’ says the spokesman. ‘We’ve urged the government not to allow school food improvement to slip back, and this does remain a concern.’
And yet… it’s possible that change isn’t such a bad thing, if it’s handled in the right way. ‘Ultimately what the trust was trying to achieve was good and necessary, but I do think it overcomplicated things with its “nutrient standards”, which supplied “example compliant menus with associated nutritionally analysed standardised recipes”,’ says nutritionist Sarah Schenker. ‘There was a great deal of confusion and anxiety when schools had to start meeting the nutrients standards and I’m not even sure if the trust had any ideas of how it would “police” it.’
Something has to be done, to teach children about healthy eating as well as feed them good food. Only last week an open letter from a coalition of restaurateurs, food manufacturers and medical experts warned that Britain is ‘sleepwalking’ into a health crisis that will cause massive social and economic problems – because we’re not teaching children about food.
Once again Gove responded to outside pressure, this time by adding cookery lessons to the National Curriculum for seven- to 14-year-olds. From September 2014, they should be able to cook 20 meals from scratch before they start their GCSEs. This is good news at last, says Oliver: ‘The commitment to food education is a great milestone, but there’s still a lot more commitment needed from Mr Gove. This is the first bit of good news in a long, long time and a big victory for our children’s futures. Most importantly, Leon has got the government to see reason where many of us couldn’t. Onwards and upwards.’
Yet there is still bad news. This week the government was forced to act over the horse meat scandal by ordering immediate tests into food across the supply chain, including school dinners. Environment secretary Owen Paterson promised to ‘restore public confidence in processed food’, which is not so much reassuring as it is depressing that our children are being forced to eat processed food in the first place.
Real change requires goodwill and effort from all concerned – schools, forward-thinking teachers, cooks and parents. Dimbleby told the The Telegraph: ‘No one wants to serve children bad food. In one school I visited, the children sat at tables of six and served each other from a big dish in the middle. It was really inspiring; they were so polite.’
And to give Dimbleby some credit, he himself lives on a ‘caveman diet’. He doesn’t eat – and his restaurants don’t serve – food that was invented in the past 1,000 years, so there’s no processed food, additives or refined carbs (white bread, rice or pasta, or cakes). And no ready meals. And no horse meat.
This is where we, as parents, can get involved. ‘Where there is doubt about the quality of school meals parents should make their feelings known to the board of governors, who have a responsibility for child welfare in all its forms,’ says Campbell. ‘It would be a great shame to see that good work undone by the removal of support of greatly influential organisations such as the Children’s Food Trust and replaced with Burger King.’
If Gove really wants to cut red tape, let’s do it for him. Not every school has space for a vegetable garden, but there’s always room for fresh thinking.