Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Now is not the time to ditch Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver. I probably don’t need to write anything else. Just mentioning his name should be enough to start a lengthy conversation. Or rant. Everyone’s heard of him. Some like to stick an expletive in the middle of his name. Many of us seem to have strong views about him, one way or another. To some, he’s a bit of a hero for championing healthy school dinners, to others he’s an over-exposed celebrity chef whose prime motivation is self-promotion. Either way, you can’t ignore him. Although the government is doing just that.

I sit firmly on the hero fence. He could have stuck to the cookery books and TV shows, and then sat back, watch his chain of restaurants multiply, getting exceedingly rich in the process. As a high profile social campaigner it’s impossible for him to escape the limelight. And now he finds himself embroiled in the political shenanigans that can sometimes come with it. Once flavour of the moment with the last Labour government, he’s getting the snub treatment from the current lot.

Jamie Oliver’s mistake has been his very public scolding of ministers, angry at what he sees as much of his good work going into reverse. Under Labour, hundreds of millions of pounds was pumped into radically improving the quality of food served up in schools. Minimum nutritional standards were set, menus were changed, some of the junk was binned. The healthier options have been warmly welcomed by pupils. Fewer schools serving pizza, more children ditching the chips and other fatty and greasy foods in favour of lasagnes and salads.

What has irked Oliver in particular is Michael Gove’s insistence that academies and the new free schools be exempt from dishing out the same healthy fare as maintained schools. Something Oliver argues is ‘short-sighted and dangerous.’

And then the news last week that the Education Secretary has launched an inquiry into the standard of school food, to be headed by two restaurateurs, followed by an ‘action plan’ for how to make things better. In other words, repeating what Oliver found out for himself seven years ago. It all seems a colossal waste of time and borne more out of a desire to be seen to be leading something, rather than adopting several years of work already in place.

No wonder Oliver seemed incredulous:

“Now is not the time for more costly reports. Now is the time for action and that doesn't seem to be what we get from Mr Gove when it comes to school food and food education. This [inquiry] just delays action for another year or more."

Whilst Oliver does not doubt the motives of Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, the men charged with leading this inquiry, he worries that it’ll end up being ‘another report by good people, destined to be ignored.’

The Sunday Times reports that their initiatives will probably be a lot cheaper than Oliver’s, focusing instead on ‘lots of little ideas,’ including setting up a website to allow children to comment on their school lunches. The paper writes that Oliver may be:

“too pro-Labour, too much in favour of tight regulation and too supportive of big spending programmes for Gove’s taste.”

For speaking out, Jamie Oliver is paying the price. There’s nothing a minister’s ego hates more than to be lambasted in the media by an expert. In particular one who worked so closely alongside another party.

The crazy thing is that Oliver’s proposals back in 2005 weren’t really in the least bit controversial. How could anyone object to what he was trying to achieve following his School Dinner’s series? The only question surrounded funding. Oliver’s persistence and boundless energy was rewarded. It beggars belief that the government seems so ready to sideline him.

In fact, Oliver’s campaign should have been the start of a concerted effort to remove all junk food permanently off school menus. I have never understood this obsession with giving children a choice at lunchtime. Schools surely have a responsibility (with the necessary resources) to only offer them a nutritional and balanced meal. Some are still falling well short. The School Food Trust has found that only 22.5% provided its pupils with at least one portion of fruit and vegetables a day. A majority still bring their own packed lunches, which itself brings up a separate problem. Now is the time we can least afford to cut adrift someone like Jamie Oliver.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 11th July 2012

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