Jamie Oliver backs improvements

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The Independent Online

The celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver backed Government moves to improve school dinners today - but vowed to remain "the voice of the dinner lady".

Oliver has led a high-profile campaign to improve food standards in schools and delivered a 271,000-signature petition backing his cause to Downing Street today.

The Government announced a minimum spend of 50p for primary school meals and 60p for secondary school pupils.

The chef said outside No 10: "The response from the public and parents and kids and teachers has been phenomenal.

"I think I am going to stay very much removed from the Government, or any government, and I'm going to try and remain the voice of the dinner lady and the parent - but it is certainly very positive."

Headteachers' leaders also welcomed the Government's promise of new money to improve school meals.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I'm glad that the Government has at last recognised that schools won't be able to provide decent, healthy meals unless there is greater investment by Government and local authorities.

"All heads are committed to improving the quality of school meals because of the obvious benefits for children but they cannot find the cash from within their existing budgets when there are so many other pressures which need to be addressed."

He said the extra money - "well spent" - should make a real difference.

"I don't really care very much whose bandwagon the Government is jumping on as long as they jump."

Oliver's arrival in Downing Street was preceded by Education Secretary Ruth Kelly, who ignored questions from reporters.

But Oliver, who said he had to be quick because he was a bit late for his meeting with the Premier, welcomed her announcement today as "20 years too late" but "the right sort of money".

Formally dressed in a black suit and brown shoes, he told the media he had dithered over his choice of tie but planned to thank Mr Blair for the movements forward on his campaign.

He said he wanted to help or advise the Government on how to spend the money "if they are interested".

He said: "I am very excited - it's what I've spent the last year and a half working towards."

He said he had taken on the campaign because so many people were being fed and such a lot of money was being spent but there was "not a big plan, not a big strategy for feeding kids right".

He said the money was being spent in the right areas but he was very interested in how the Government planned to police the private sector.

He said he thought "the devil's in the detail".

There had been a "massive improvement to where we were a week ago", but it was a shame it had taken his TV series, Jamie's School Dinners, to prompt the Government's move.

He said: "I think unfortunately it has taken a documentary, and really the hearts and emotions of the kids and families that I've filmed, to sort of touch the nation, really."

Following the meeting at Downing Street with Mr Blair and Ms Kelly, an excited Oliver said he thought there was "good energy" from the Government behind the campaign.

He said he had been told the Government planned to do up every school kitchen over the next five to 10 years.

He said he had not had time to have the breakfast offered at Downing Street but said it was "healthy" and included fruit juices.

He said: "The old adrenalin is pumping, I'm quite emotional, quite excited."

He said he had expected support to improve school meal standards because it was important and it had touched him.

England should not be "the embarrassment of Europe" with regard to its food and school meals, he said.

But he vowed he would not be working for the Government - and would "not be working for anyone" - as he thought that would be unfair. He revealed he was also seeing the Conservatives on Thursday.

He said of his top-level meeting: "They are very much onside now. There is a lot of energy around getting it right now."

He added that the Prime Minister was enthusiastic about the issue: "He was very passionate about getting this right."

The chef's Feed Me Better internet petition has been signed by 271,677 people, and its demands include qualifications for dinner ladies, more money to be spent on meals for children, and more time for catering staff to prepare meals.

The response to the petition surprised Oliver, who originally expected only about 20,000 signatures.

Yesterday, Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, suggested the chef should be knighted for his campaign to improve school dinners.

Earlier this month, Ms Kelly promised that Labour would bring in minimum nutritional standards for all school meals from September next year.

From this September, processed food such as sausages, cakes and burgers will have to meet tougher rules designed to cut their levels of salt, sugar and fat.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said the £280 million package was for schools in England only.

Commenting on the announcement, Professor Sir Alan Craft, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "The Labour Party is absolutely right to put these extra resources into delivering better school meals.

"That extra money must ensure that children have a balanced diet, which is the very foundation on which everything else can be built. Let's see what the other parties can offer as well.

"The health of Britain's children is absolutely key to addressing the overall health of the nation.

"If we want a new generation of healthy adults, then the best way is to start in childhood."

The Transport and General Workers Union, which represents many catering workers in schools, welcomed the Government's announcement.

Peter Allenson, T&G national secretary for public services, said: "We want to see a nutritionally healthy diet for children and to make school meals an attractive option and more money is always welcome.

"But Government, local authorities and schools must make sure that the amount per meal also takes into account the provision of decently equipped kitchens to ensure fresh food can be prepared and properly trained kitchen staff who can take advantage of ongoing training.

"Too often in the past, privatising school meals has meant cutting costs, cutting nutrition standards and cutting staff."