Jamie Oliver urges more investment in school meals

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The Independent Online

TV chef Jamie Oliver today called on the Government to invest in school meals, as figures showed more pupils were eating them.

More than four in ten (41.4%) primary age children are now eating school lunches, up from 39.3% last year, according to statistics published by the School Food Trust (SFT) and the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA).

There has also been a minimal rise in secondary schools, where 35.8% of children are now eating school meals, up from 35% in 2008/09.

Oliver said he was "massively encouraged" by the new figures, which he said showed the hard work of dinner ladies, teachers, parents and the School Food Trust, "even with stretched resources".

It was important that the figure kept rising, Oliver said.

"Some people in government might look at the figures and think that it's now time to take the foot off the gas because it's a success story," he said.

"That would be completely wrong. Now is the time to move up a gear. This is the time for both education and health departments to invest in those schools who still have problems with lack of training for dinner ladies or who suffer from having a dining area that's too small or uninviting.

"Now is the time to ensure that life skills education, including teaching kids how to grow food and cook it from fresh, is compulsory for all primary and secondary school kids.

"Investment now saves lives and NHS billions in the future. We're on the right track with school meals. We can't allow anything to slow this down.

"When I started working on school food, I always said it would be a 10 to 13-year plan and we're only a third of the way through. You don't change decades of neglect in a handful of years but we need governments to think long term and not just to the next election."

An extra 320,980 pupils in England are eating school dinners, the figures show, the biggest year-on-year increase since the school meals revolution began.

It was kick-started by Oliver who ran a campaign five years ago for better quality school dinners.

After Oliver's campaign won huge public support, the Government banned junk food from school canteens and vending machines and in 2006 new rules to make food healthier were introduced in English schools.

Strict nutritional guidelines were made compulsory in primary schools in 2008, and the same was introduced in secondaries last September.

Today's survey is based on information provided by 152 local authorities across England.

The findings show that school dinners cost an average of £1.83 in primary schools and £1.94 in secondaries - a 3% increase on 2008-09.

SFT chairman Rob Rees said: "The number of children eating school meals had been on a downward spiral for many years when Jamie Oliver brought the issue into the nation's living room, leading to even more children and parents turning their backs on canteens.

"Now, following the introduction of national standards for meals and the hard work to improve the dining room experience for children, this is being reversed - disproving the myth that children simply don't want to eat healthy food.

"However, the number of children eating school meals is still in the minority so the School Food Trust, schools, caterers, local authorities and cooks still have a huge amount to do before we can say the school meals revolution is complete."