Editor-At-Large: Free choice is not fit to go on school lunch menus

Janet Street-Porter

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Life is precious, but if you're poor you'll live an average of 10 years less than someone from the middle classes. Life expectancy isn't just determined by income; diet is a critical factor. As we know, this country has spawned a generation of fatties who are addicted to junk food, shun exercise and can't cook – with many destined for an early grave, having cost the health service a considerable amount of money.

So why did the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, tell a doctor's conference last week that what we eat should remain an "individual choice"? The truth is that when it comes to educating kids about food we need more government, not less. If the Tories believe in this notion of a "big society", they must accept that changing attitudes has to start in the classroom. They might be committed to cutting waste, culling quangos and abolishing unpopular legislation, but the one area they cannot skimp on is improving the younger generation's diet.

Mr Lansley made a huge mistake when he short-sightedly attacked Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school catering, and implied it had been unsuccessful. Sure, only four in 10 primary school kids and one in three secondary pupils currently eat school meals, but that is largely the fault of the misguided notion of "free choice". The minute that children were allowed to bring in packed lunches, quality control went out of the window. In came Pringles and crisps, snacks drenched in fat and salt.

Jamie Oliver drew attention to the appalling standards of school meals in his 2005 Jamie's School Dinners series. A petition signed by 300,000 members of the public proved he had huge support. Tony Blair couldn't wait to be photographed basking in the gorgeous glow of the Naked Chef, but he didn't allocate sufficient funding for staff training, new equipment and the relaunching of healthier meals to be rolled out all over the country. Even so, many suppliers and volunteers rose to the challenge and now many schools offer excellent fare, but that ludicrous notion of personal choice still remains.

Andrew Lansley should realise that children need to be taught proper cooking from the age of eight; how to shop and make their kind of funky food, so that they are willing to widen their notoriously narrow range of tastes. These are the same kids who love watching the high-decibel, frenetic presentational styles of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie on the telly. School catering needs to tap into some of that pizzazz.

My partner teaches challenged boys how to prepare food from scratch, and he's never encountered one who didn't turn out to be an excellent cook. These teenagers can make pastry, pies, pasta and pizzas. Children acquire so many other skills while cooking: reading, maths, dexterity and sharing. Once they can feel ownership of the school lunch menu, then it should become compulsory. Kids should be the stakeholders in determining what kind of service they get. After all, they're the consumers.

Mr Lansley is also on record as saying he doesn't want to ban trans fats, present in a huge range of junk foods and accounting for around 7,000 premature deaths in the UK every year. Recently, MEPs bowed to industry pressure and prevented the traffic light labelling system – which uses red, amber and green to indicate quantitites of fat, salt and sugar – being introduced on food packaging.

It now seems as if the Tories have abdicated all responsibility for nutrition. Mr Lansley says he wants an "evidence-based" approach to public health, but I see no joined-up thinking. His laissez-faire policies will just result in a terrible burden on the health service.

Eating well isn't about spending a lot. You only have to look at the health of the nation during the post-war years. Rationing reduced choice – we ate less sugar, meat and butter, and women saw providing an evening meal on an extremely tight budget as part of their daily routine. They used pressure cookers, cheap cuts of meat, root vegetables and pulses.

The Government is right to scrap targets in such areas as the police and the NHS. They divert practitioners from setting the priorities that work best. But when it comes to food, we need more intervention, not less.

Look, no skirt: Why has Wonder Woman reached for her leggings?

At the exact moment that Lady Gaga is hailed as the most fashionable woman on the planet, DC Comics exhibits a rare lack of timing and announces a makeover for its iconic heroine, Wonder Woman. Out go those star-encrusted, shiny satin pants, and in come nasty leggings and a bomber jacket hiding her perfectly toned arms. What were they thinking? Wonder Woman is 69 and hasn't aged a bit – but that original look, worn to perfection by Lynda Carter in the 1970s television series, is bang on trend. Lady Gaga was surely inspired by WW when she opted for the pants as daywear, while fashion editors recently gave leggings the official thumbs down, decreeing them way past their sell-by date. No one's going to want to dress up in the new WW outfit. I once went to a party as Wonder Woman, making sure the gusset on my pants was triple-stitched. The gold whip and gauntlets went down a storm – Michael Stipe was desperate to try the whole lot on.

A parable for our times

Toy Story 3 is completely engrossing: the razor-sharp script is hilarious and the new characters of Ken and Barbie are a riot. I love the sequence in which Ken stages a fashion show for Barbie in outfits from his gorgeous wardrobe. This bloke is camper than Graham Norton, and that's saying something. It's no surprise the film got great reviews and is a huge hit in the US, a success sure to be repeated here when it opens on 19 July.

But will kids enjoy the movie as much as adults? The joy for grown-ups is the way the stars of the film – the ageing toys – see their owners (i.e. us when we were younger); and the script is never mawkish, cleverly avoiding cutesy moments. The grand finale when the toys are heading for the dump is as gripping as any action movie. A fitting parable for our times.

Save money – sack a celebrity

Responding to public outcry, BBC bosses announced the end of "gold-plated" pensions, froze the pay of middle management and gave the lower orders a small annual bonus. Now, senior executives will hand back one month's salary a year for the next two years, and the chairman has announced he would like the DG to name the highest-paid presenters. The executive pay cuts are meaningless, as they will keep their benefits, and I can't see what revealing the earnings of stars such as Fiona Bruce and Evan Davis will prove. If the BBC is worried about paying too much, it should sack a load of "stars" and see if competitors offer them work. Jonathan Ross had to take a big pay cut to get back on ITV. By the way, in January the BBC spent nearly £12,000 of licence payers' money on legal fees trying to stop us finding out what their stars earn. That's how committed they really are to transparency.

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