School dinners win £280m boost after chef's campaign

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The Independent Online

The Education Secretary Ruth Kelly will announce £280m extra funding for the school meals service, bowing to pressure from Jamie Oliver to improve it.

The Education Secretary Ruth Kelly will today announce £280m extra funding for the school meals service, bowing to pressure from Jamie Oliver to improve it.

The money is aimed at encouraging healthy eating habits among the nation's seven million school children. The announcement will coincide with the handing in of a petition to Downing Street by the television chef calling for more money to promote healthy eating.

More than 271,000 people have signed his petition demanding the amount of money spent on meals be raised from 37p to 50p per child following his Channel 4 programme Jamie's School Dinners. Ministers have been taken aback by the success of the programme and feel they have been forced to act as a result of the groundswell of support for Oliver's campaign.

Tony Blair is expected to offer Oliver red-carpet treatment, greeting him with Ms Kelly when he presents his petition at 8.30am this morning.

Ministers have set themselves a target in their five-year plan for the future of education to halve obesity among primary school children by 2009.

As part of the new funding plans, the cash will be used to improve school kitchens and help schools offer organic food and healthy eating options instead of burgers, chips and pizzas. Ms Kelly has said she wants to see healthy dinners instead of "cheap burgers and sausages''.

Oliver recently persuaded Greenwich council in south-east London to increase the 37p allocated per child for dinner to 50p after providing healthy food for children in the area on his programme. The petition to be presented to the Government today urged the authorities to increase food budgets for schoolchildren across the country.

Last night, a spokesman for the chef said would comment on the announcement after he had discussed the situation with the Government. "Jamie is meeting with the Government after he hands the petition in at 8.30 in the morning," he said.

Oliver added that he was looking forward to handing in the petition and meeting politicians to discuss the development. "I am really keen to see what the Government's response will be," he wrote last night on his website.

However, opponents claim the Government is jumping on the Jamie Oliver bandwagon. The Government insists it had been planning a boost to the school meals service for several months. Meanwhile, the Conservatives also plan to meet Oliver tomorrow to discuss ways of improving school meals. They are expected to announce their own package within a couple of weeks.

However, Oliver has emphasised how his overall concerns remain the health and welfare of new generations of schoolchildren as opposed to the political implications of his campaign in relation to the pending election.

Writing earlier on his website, he said: "With the election coming up the campaign has become political and rather than jumping into bed with either party I am just going to remain on the grass roots level and be the voice for the dinner ladies, parents and kids."

The situation surrounding the nation's school dinners has increasingly preoccupied parents and politicians alike over recent months.

Research published last week suggested three-quarters of parents would be prepared to pay more for school dinners if they included more fresh food. The survey, by the British Market Research Bureau, was the first test of public response to the school dinner issue.

It also found that almost one in seven children shunned school dinners in favour of eating from vending machines or shops, reigniting concerns about their diets.

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