Caterers say "the Jamie Oliver effect" has led to a 12.5 per cent fall in children opting for school dinners. Kevin McKay, the chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), said even schools that were already serving healthy dinners had suffered a drop. "People's perception of meals is what they saw on the TV," Mr McKay said. "Many authorities were already doing healthy meals. They also saw a decrease. More and more children are now bringing their own packed lunches in, which have been proved to be not as healthy."
But Oliver hit back last night, appealing to parents to campaign for their local schools to improve standards and calling on the Government to increase investment in school dinners.
Packed lunches, Oliver told The Independent on Sunday, "are the biggest evil. Even the best packed lunch is a shit packed lunch. If you had seen some of the things that I have seen over the past few years ... It's disgraceful. I have seen packed lunches that are just last night's reheated chips, or crisps and chocolate bars."
Many packed lunches also have a soft or fizzy drink. It was revealed yesterday that 26 soft drinks were found to contain high levels of a cancer-causing chemical, benzene. Four of the drinks have been removed from supermarket shelves.
Oliver added: "If parents really are opting out of school dinners for their children because of my programme, well it's all right for the schools and boroughs to get offended if they are doing well - but most often they're not.I'm in this for the long haul and I'm concerned with making things better long term."
Jamie's School Dinners was a huge ratings and critical success when it was screened last spring. Oliver's struggle to cook healthy food at a south London school within a 37p-per-child budget caught the imagination - as did his battle to persuade children to ditch pizza and chips in favour of healthier food.
Nearly 300,000 people signed his "Feed Me Better" petition and Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, announced a £280m package to improve dinners, including new kitchen facilities and training for dinner ladies. New nutritional standards will be mandatory from September.
But according to the LACA, many areas of the country have experienced dramatic falls in the number of children eating school dinners. Suffolk has had the biggest decrease - the number of school meals served last year fell from 19,000 to 13,000. Many others areas have seen numbers fall by 20 to 25 per cent.
Mr McKay said: "Jamie has put this on the Government's agenda. We should never have allowed this to happen, but the resources just were not there."
Oliver is filming a new programme on school dinners, to be shown in the autumn, that will analyse progress made so far. "We still need more money," he said. "It's not enough."
WHAT'S FOR DINNER
The school lunch
At Westley Middle School, Bury St Edmunds: jacket potato (carbohydrates), strips of ham and cheese (protein), sweetcorn and orange juice drink (vitamins may be offset by sugar content).
The packed lunch
Typically contains a sandwich made with white bread (high sugar and salt levels), a packet of crisps (high levels of unsaturated fats), a can of cola (high in sugar and caffeine), a chocolate bar and sweets (more sugar).Reuse content