School winners

Masterclasses for budding Ramsays, a slew of family cookbooks, healthy school meals... Six months on, Bill Knott looks at the success of Jamie Oliver's carrot-waving assault on kids' food

Promising "action... to meet concern over school meals", Tony Blair praised Oliver's "remarkable work" and said he would look at eliminating processed food and increasing the amount of organic and local produce in meals.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly then promised £280m of new money to fund an increase in the average budget for school meals - 50p per meal in primary schools and 60p per meal in secondary schools - and better training for catering staff. Whether the money was really "new" or not is a moot point - much of it came from a reserve fund in the general education budget - but the initiative was generally welcomed. The Government also announced the formation of a School Meals Review Panel, chaired by Suzi Leather, which is expected to introduce tough new nutritional guidelines.

Last month, the Government outlined how the money would be spent: in two separate allocations, one to schools and one to local education authorities. It then announced plans to include school-meal provision in Ofsted inspections from next year. Also, the Caroline Walker Trust (which campaigns for good food for children and the vulnerable) and the National Heart Forum produced a report called Eating Well, which established nutritional guidelines that are expected to be adopted by the School Meals Review Panel. The report says that its guidelines are unlikely to be met if budgets drop to below 70p a meal for primary schools or 80p a meal for secondary schools.

School Dinners was highly critical of a number of products and suppliers. Oliver threatened to "send a bomb" to Bernard Matthews, whose Turkey Twizzlers - a "sausage-style product" that contains 40 different ingredients, including eight E numbers - came in for the most flak. Many schools took them off the menu, amid protests from the manufacturer that they had lowered levels of fat and salt, and that a Turkey Twizzler was nutritionally no worse than a sausage - but sales then rose in supermarkets.

This is the problem that everybody involved in child nutrition acknowledges as the hardest to solve. Healthy food options at school are one thing; persuading children to take them, and persuading parents to back up schools' efforts with proper meals at home, is quite another.

Scolarest, the leading caterer in the education sector, also came in for criticism. Tony Sanders, MD of Scolarest's primary-school division, was persuaded by Oliver to take Turkey Twizzlers off the menu, and now welcomes the Government's initiative. "The most valuable thing Jamie did was to make people realise that money is the issue. Half the schools we supply are now on a better budget and, since Easter, we have trialled healthier menus at 80 schools, with encouraging results: where there is support from teachers, parents and catering staff, the take-up rates for school meals are improving."

He admits that the problem of unbalanced meals is easier to deal with in the primary sector. "I was actually very impressed with the level of knowledge among five- to eight-year-olds in a focus group we set up in a disadvantaged area: the media has done a lot in that field. When these children reach secondary school age, I expect things to improve there, too."

Most children at secondary school are allowed off-site at lunchtime, and many head for the nearest takeaway. Sarah Walcott, a teacher at a north London comprehensive, has noticed a huge difference in pupil behaviour after lunch. "Many schools have actually been forced to restrict teaching after lunch to just one period: children often come back from lunch more aggressive and sometimes hyperactive, with a shorter attention span, while children who don't eat lunch at all are often tired."

Improving budgets is important, but education about food is vital. If food is not included in other parts of the curriculum - cookery is no longer on the timetable in most schools - there is a danger that children will receive mixed messages about healthy eating.

Many of the young chefs responsible for Britain's restaurant boom in the 1990s now have children, and Oliver is not the only one to have taken an interest in children's eating habits. There are more and more books being published for families and children (see box, right), and now Peter Lloyd, father of two and head chef at the City Café restaurant in Westminster, has started running cookery masterclasses.

"It's been incredibly successful, and very encouraging," he says. "Parents often come along, and they often find it revealing, too. At the end of the class we hold a 'smoothie competition' and the great thing is that the kids can tell you everything that went into their creation. Getting kids used to new ingredients is the key."

He admits, though, that there is a class divide when it comes to healthy eating. "Children with wealthy parents might say, 'Great! Roasted cod with couscous,' but I did a charity masterclass for kids from less privileged backgrounds and, not only were they less clued-up about fresh ingredients but also, they seemed much less interested in the class. Jamie's done a fantastic job, but you have to lead kids quite gently by the hand, not force unfamiliar things on them."

That we still have a way to go in improving the food our children eat is exemplified by the Channel 4 website dedicated to Jamie's School Dinners. As I surfed through the excellent advice, forums and links, and watched a splendid cartoon about the perils of processed food, an advertisement suddenly loomed large on the screen. It was a "buy one, get one free" promotion for McDonalds' burgers. After all his hard work in putting school dinners on the political agenda, Oliver, one suspects, isn't lovin' it.

For more information, visit www.feedmebetter.com or www.channel4.com; for information about cookery classes at the City Café, tel: 020 7932 4701 or visit www.citycafe.co.uk

Cookery books for children

By Bill Knott and Rebecca Pearson

Antony Worrall Thompson's new family cookbook, Real Family Food (Mitchell Beazley, £16.99), is published in October, and features plenty of lovely, moreish recipes. October also sees the publication of The River Cottage Family Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Hodder, £20), which emphasises the fun and magic in cooking. The same can also be said for Heston Blumenthal's Kitchen Chemistry (The Royal Society of Chemistry, £19.95), in which he explains the scientific basis underpinning our experiences of food. This will be distributed free to every secondary school in the country.

The children themselves will enjoy the excellent Kids' Kitchen (Mitchell Beazley, £16.99), by Amanda Grant. It features straightforward recipes, and safety is high on the agenda.

For parents struggling with the school term, Lunch Boxes by Jennifer Joyce (Penguin £10) is full of helpful ideas, and even includes a weekly meal planner.

It's been around for a while, but Mark Hix's Eat Up: Food for Children of All Ages (Fourth Estate, £12.99) is good for stressing fresh ingredients, and includes recipes for children with allergies.

For babies, three new books stand out from the rest: The Gina Ford Baby and Toddler Cookbook (Vermilion, £14.99), by the revolutionary childcare expert; Top 100 Baby Purées by Annabel Karmel (Ebury, £8.99); and the charming Feed Me! by Gerrie Hawes (Kyle Cathie, £14.99).

To order any of these books (with free p&p, as well as discounts on several titles), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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