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Irene Carroll, chairwoman of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA)

17 August 2006

Irene Carroll, incoming chairwoman of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), was planning to retire. However, she has decided to stay on, unpaid, and complete her one-year tenure as LACA chair. She talks to Emily Manson

Did Jamie Oliver do more harm than good? Initially, he did more harm, as parents believed what he showed on TV was happening across the board and we lost a huge amount of paid meals because of it. It was sensational TV and, while he may understand food and cooking, he didn't understand our industry. Hopefully, though, in 10 years' time, we will have healthier children because he has put lifestyle education at the forefront of the national curriculum.

What would you say to Jamie Oliver? I asked him recently to acknowledge frontline staff, as they have taken all the flak and it's been tough. They need support as, without them, we have nothing. I would also ask him to work with us wholeheartedly and not against us. He needs to understand how local authorities work; it's not just about money, we have to find ways of working within each council's parameters, and that's not always easy.

Is the School Food Trust (SFT) doing enough to help with nutritional guidelines? The SFT has a part to play, as does LACA, but there must be a willingness from all parties to work together and maintain clear objectives. The public will get confused if too many people jump on the bandwagon, and there has to be joint strategic thinking. The SFT has a big agenda, but it must link into the good work that local authority caterers are already doing. They are the ones who actually make change happen.

Is 12 months long enough to make a difference? No. It took 25 years to get into this mess and it'll take 20 to get out of it. We have to move forward in a constructive and positive way, and change children's eating habits through sound information. It's not just about feeding kids at lunchtime - our meals represent only 18% of their daily food. The whole school approach needs to be about educating kids to eat well, live well and change their lifestyles.

As private caterers get increasingly choosy about contracts, will many return in-house? External contractors will be choosier than ever and may not tender at all, so authorities will either have to take contracts back in-house at nil cost or find alternatives if they don't have the facilities. It all comes down to funding.

What advice has predecessor Kevin McKay given you? He told me to enjoy it - while buying me a double brandy! He also warned that there would be difficult times but to remember our passion for the industry. If Jamie thinks he's passionate, he doesn't know me yet! I've been in this business for 31 years and I've never stopped trying to feed children good, healthy food.

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Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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