Food for thought: Why haven't school dinners got any better?

Schools are still stuffing children with junk food, despite Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthier eating. In an exclusive interview with Prue Leith, the school meals tsar, Hilary Wilce finds out why
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The Independent Online

The Government has just announced a £372m budget to tackle obesity, including a £75m advertising campaign to persuade parents to feed their children better. Yet the Government itself is complicit in the soaring obesity rates because tens of thousands of British children are still eating poor-quality meals in school, or buying lunchtime kebabs and chips at the school gate.

How is this possible? It is nearly four years since the celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was ranting about the state of school meals on television, and since then the Government, stung into action, has earmarked an extra £280m for school dinners. It also set up a body to promote healthy eating for schoolchildren and promised to improve the training of dinner ladies.

But last autumn Oliver was back in front of MPs in the House of Commons saying that progress on this was "a bloody disgrace" and we were facing "an incredibly profound" health crisis because of poor nutrition. So where has all the money gone? Why is it proving so hard to put good, nutritious food in front of children in school?

The answers lie in a smart west-London flat, home of the chef and restaurateur Prue Leith, the school meals tsar who two years ago became leader of the newly-created School Food Trust, having already been active in promoting better food for schoolchildren.

So has the Trust failed to do its job? Not at all, she says, with spirit. It is an organisation of 40 passionate people who are "working their socks off" to get people in and around schools enthused about good food, and who are finally beginning to see progress.

Then is it that the Government doesn't care enough? Apparently not. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, cooks a mean stir fry for his children, according to Leith, and is right behind all the moves to make school food better.

So why are school dinners still so dispiriting? Why, when heads say proudly that they have "revamped their menu offer", does this mean soggy vegetables and watery pasta? Why are hoards of younger children still eating, like junior prisoners, off compartmentalised trays with plastic cutlery? And why are so many older ones sloping off to buy junk food at lunchtime? She sighs. She takes a deep breath. And the answer takes about an hour and a half to unfold because it is about a multitude of things.

The nub of it is this: the situation is much worse than most of us realise. Naively, when Leith took on her new role with the School Food Trust, she imagined it was a job she could sort out quickly and walk away from. But she was, she says, a middle-class woman living in the South-east of England. "Although I knew all about the obesity problem, I did not know there were whole estates where children came to primary school never having eaten a proper meal," she explains. "I didn't know there were children who had never eaten with a knife and fork. Or that there were so many children who think that 'cooking' is taking a meal out of the fridge and putting it in the microwave.

"And in order to change children's attitude to food you have to have parents on board, and you have to have the attention of the head, and the attention of the staff, and of course they've all got so many other tasks, it doesn't always seem to them high on the agenda."

Also, she says, the School Food Trust was slow to get going, with 18 months spent tangled up in European legislation over things like the definition of fruit juice. Then, when it finally did so, it faced a difficult situation on the ground because the take-up of school meals had actually dropped in the wake of Oliver's television programmes. "Although the figures are now going up in primary schools and we've stopped the rot in secondary schools," says Leith. "And the average school dinner is much healthier than it was before. But you simply can't change people's diet overnight. The marketing budget for one day for Kentucky Fried Chicken is what we get for the whole year in the School Food Trust."

This brings her on to the question of television advertising. Although there are restrictions on what foods can be advertised before the watershed, the children Prue Leith is trying to reach are all up until 12 o'clock every night. Then there is our snack culture. "Walk down the street and everyone is eating all the time," she says.

In addition, there is the fact that food technology lessons threw cooking out of the window in favour of studying packaging and marketing. Then there is the way that health and safety rules hamper so many cooking initiatives. And the fact that dinner ladies are paid peanuts and still mostly untrained. And the fact that neither mums nor many teachers can cook, and that we are still building schools with inadequate kitchens because the developers work on the basis of how many pupils have school meals now, not how many will be eating them in the future....

All this, she says, is not to duck blame or point the finger, but simply to explain just how hard it is to change an entrenched food culture. But things are shifting. If this article were concentrating on the positive developments in school food, it would be filled with details of new training centres opening for dinner ladies, the Lottery-funded initiatives to start cooking clubs in schools and the move to stop junk food being sold at school gates.

Everything is slowly picking up speed, but it is the word "slowly" that is driving Oliver bonkers, while Leith, who has been on a fact-finding visit to Finland, talks longingly of schools where food is woven into the curriculum, where kitchens are so well equipped they can feed an entire school freshly-cooked stir fry and where there is no choice for anyone beyond the single vegetarian option. It all makes Britain seem stuck in the dark ages. But if we aren't going to get new kitchens and well-trained dinner ladies overnight, what is to be done?

Oliver says the Government must multiply its investment in food education 10 times to £6.5bn, put someone in charge of school food for the next 10 years, and get all the nation's 125,000 dinner ladies trained as fast as possible. The School Food Trust, he says, tries valiantly but "can't always tell it like it is".

Leith freely agrees. "Jamie is brilliant," she says. "We need him there to give people a kick, even if he sometimes gives us one, too." Donning her personal hat she wonders whether we shouldn't simply remove all choice from school menus and make children eat what is given them, although we're all far too wedded to the "choice" notion to do that, she says. So she puts her official hat back on and says that the thing that would be of most help is if free school meals were extended to the children above the "extremely poor ones." Pilot studies on this are already under way.

She would also like to see school kitchens used for food lessons, a grannies' army helping with cookery clubs, and more room for children to sit down and eat school meals together.

"The most important person to reach in any school is the head teacher and, if I can get to him or her, then I can get things changed," she says. "They don't necessarily have to be passionate, but they do have to be not a blocker. But the problem is, in the most difficult schools to reach, there often isn't a stable head teacher to work with."