The school meals industry has broadly welcomed Jamie Oliver's new mission to ‘save school dinners', but the celebrity chef has come under fire over the practicality of some of his proposals.
In his Feed Me Even Better campaign manifesto launched last week, Oliver outlined his eight-point action plan (see box) to safeguard the achievements of the industry in the six years since his Jamie's School Dinners TV series, which kick-started a school food revolution.
The campaigning chef was spurred into action by his concern that the Government is less committed to school food than its Labour predecessor. Since Michael Gove became education secretary 18 months ago, dedicated funding for school meals is no longer ring-fenced.
Gove also decided that the nutritional standards for school meals in England should not apply to academies and free schools and local councils no longer have to monitor the take-up of free school meals.
"I'm very worried," Oliver said in The Guardian. "Although I would love to believe that Mr Gove has school food high on his agenda, I've not heard anything so far worth celebrating."
But while Gordon Haggarty, managing director of Accent Catering, said he believed Oliver's past efforts are still paying dividends, he remained unsure of how practical some of the chef's ideas are.
And although Oliver's renewed passion for school meals was welcomed by those working on the frontline of the industry, there was frustration that it took his involvement to push the topic back up the agenda.
"Why does it always require his intervention and attention from the national media to highlight concerns that the school food industry itself has been communicating to the Government and the public for months?" asked Lynda Mitchell, chair of the Local Authorities Caterers Association (LACA), referring to the organisation's lobbying to level the playing field with nutritional standards mandatory in all schools.
Mitchell also expressed unease at Oliver's proposal to offer financial incentives to schools that successfully increase the take-up of free school meals.
"If all schools used cashless payment then perhaps it could be done more discreetly," she explained. "But we don't want to go back down that route of highlighting the children on free school meals. It's not the only indicator of deprivation."
Simon James, director at Eden Foodservice, and School Food Trust (SFT) chairman Rob Rees were also wary about the idea of rewarding schools for increasing uptake. James said: "As with all funding, there is a limit. So by increasing funding in one area, another area will have a compensatory reduction.
"Why do we need to incentivise a small number of schools that are currently not proactive and potentially financially penalise those who have made increasing uptake a priority over the past five years?"
Rees said that the SFT is submitting alternative idea to Government that aim to deal with the underlying issue of poor take-up, a challenge he said Oliver's idea didn't address.
Jamie Oliver's eight-point plan
1 More money for school food: financially reward schools that increase school meal take-up with the School Food Premium
2 Nutritional standards made mandatory for all schools
3 Cooking classes made compulsory in all schools, with a minimum of 24 hours of practical lessons during every key stage
4 Train teachers so they can teach cooking
5 Every school should grow some food with the involvement of the pupils
6 Capital funding used to improve school canteens and kitchens
7 Ofsted inspections to include the assessment of the nutritional content of school food
8 Use the pupil premium to give poorer pupils access to healthy food
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