School dinners and the Jamie Oliver effect

21 October 2010 by
School dinners and the Jamie Oliver effect

Love him or loathe him, few can deny the effect celebrity chef Jamie Oliver had when he turned his attention to school meals. Chris Druce looks at what he achieved and where the service is now - five years after the first episode of his TV show aired.

Before Jamie Oliver turned his attention to school meals there was only darkness… and Turkey Twizzlers, and an average ingredient spend of 36p.

Certainly listening to the mainstream media you'd think the irrepressible chef had single-handedly transformed an ailing system - largely ignoring a lot of hard work over the years by the likes of the Caroline Walker Trust and others.

While this isn't true - and not all the attention generated by his involvement was helpful - he propelled the largely ignored plight of school caterers, doing their best in an unloved and underfunded system, so far up the political agenda that the then prime minister Tony Blair took time out from ordering invasions to discuss the issue with Oliver personally.

Oliver laid bare a system that had been squeezed due to the previous Conservative government's decision to introduce compulsory competitive tendering at the end of the 1980s - following deregulation of the school system via the Education Act at the start of that decade, which did away with the then nutritional standards. In effect, this meant cheapest deal wins, and a spiral of undercutting and subsequently limited investment left the Local Authority Caterers Association's (LACA) members and private contractors doing the best they could with very little. The response was the launch of the Feed Me Better campaign to highlight the situation, with Oliver focusing his televised efforts via Jamie's School Dinners at Kidbrooke Secondary School in Greenwich, south-east London.

While Oliver's involvement in this most emotive of issues, and let's not forget his motivations were good, have proved to be the catalyst for change, many foresaw the backlash and labelled him a menace at the time. Many parents watching Jamie's School Dinners didn't like what they saw and, following predictable herd mentality, pulled back from the system sending uptake spiralling - something only just recovering now - in-turn threatening its viability.

Former LACA chairman Beverley Baker explains: "Jamie Oliver kick-started a welcomed revolution which brought about a much-needed injection of Government cash but we were then catapulted into trying to ‘undo' 20 years of neglect and under-funding as well as a culture fixed on fast food."

Sharon Armstong, the 2004 School Chef of the Year and now assistant area manager at North Yorkshire Country Caterers, remembers being invited to a conference featuring Oliver at the time and wanting to have words. "Overall things have improved but certainly where I worked we were already moving to much of what he was calling for. I was disappointed that he went to an area where it was all processed food. I felt it unfair that he didn't look at other areas where changes were taking place and we all got lumped in together." Her view is typical of many school caterers.

Given that the introduction of school meals in 1906 by the newly elected Liberal government was due to fears of malnutrition amongst the nation's children, it's tempting to see the current situation as an ever repeating battle. Oliver was in some quarters approached with mistrust, with many questioning his commitment beyond improving his profile. True enough the chef has moved on to other projects, albeit mostly with a healthy eating bent, and set up restaurant chain Jamie's Italian, but he has not disengaged.

In September, he gave his thoughts on the school meals legacy he'd left, saying: "I think things are going well. We always thought it would take 10 years to really see a difference but there are already figures that show uptake is increasing and that kids eating a healthy lunch perform better at school. We definitely need the Government to keep investing and supporting schools that need better catering facilities and dining halls though - just because things are getting better doesn't mean that the job is done."

Oliver has also revealed plans to put his money where his mouth is and has promised to put aside a percentage of future profits from each of his companies to improve food education and meals in primary schools. Although at an early stage, schools would be able to bid for funding to build gardens, new kitchens and purchase related teaching resources. Mentors providing education support will also be made available.

Vic Laws, managing director of AVL Consultancy, sums up Oliver's impact thus: "He was a necessary evil. The money it brought was welcome and it was good TV but in a lot of cases simply not true. Unfortunately parents believed what they saw on TV and we're only now seeing meal uptake recovering to pre-Oliver levels. One has to remember that the reason why people were doing what they were doing in the first place, and there had been some deskilling, was an absence of funding."

Jamie Oliver has now turned his attention to the USA in his TV series, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution


Compass Group, as the largest private contractor in the school meals field as Jamie Oliver hit, came in for a fair bit of stick. Five years on, Tony Byrne, managing director of its rebadged education business, Chartwells, outlines how it adapted its service.

"While working with all of the schools for which we cater to implement the Government's nutritional standards, we also engaged with students and undertook extensive research into school-age eating.

"The findings highlighted a number of factors which would enable us to enhance our current offer, including the importance students place on food presentation, the fact that students want to be treated like adults - both in terms of the food offer and service provision - and the growing interest in food provenance."

Compass refreshed its secondary school offer as a result, introducing daily tasting sessions and live theatre cookery to get pupils engaged.

"Chartwells' secondary school meals refresh also looked at how to enrich the dining environment," says Byrne. "Providing students with the right dining environment is a core part of the catering provision and, if designed correctly, can significantly increase the uptake of school meals."


February 2005 The first episode of Jamie's School Dinners airs on Channel 4. Appalled by the culture of Turkey Twizzlers and junk food in school canteens, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launches a campaign to improve school food.

March 2005 Oliver delivers a petition, signed by 271,677 people, to 10 Downing Street, calling for an improvement to school meals. In response, the Government sets up the School Meals Review Panel, which publishes Turning the Tables in October of that year.

April 2005
The Government pledges £220m over three years, which must be spent by schools exclusively on improving their food. There is an additional £60m for training and equipment and the School Food Trust is set up to advise schools - and parents - on providing healthier meals.

Interim food-based standards are introduced into schools in England limiting consumption of junk food.

September 2007 The School Lunch Grant is announced, pledging a further £240m to help schools improve lunch uptake until 2011, specifically by helping to keep down the price of meals. The ring-fenced grant could be used in one of four ways - to pay for ingredients for school lunches, to pay labour costs of catering staff, to buy small pieces of equipment, or to pay for nutrient analysis software and the expertise to operate it.

September 2008 Nutrient-based food standards come into force at England's primary schools.

September 2009
Nutrient-based food standards come into force at England's secondary schools." target="_blank" rel="noreferrer">

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