Janet Street-Porter: Let's face it - kids still won't eat their greens

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The Independent Online

Jamie Oliver still exudes boyish charm – and millions of us tune in to Channel 4 to watch him extolling the virtues of growing and cooking your own vegetables. His latest book, Jamie at Home, is a bestseller in spite of costing a whopping £25 for a chunky volume that's full of pictures of the lad in his veg patch, and somewhat thin on actual recipes.

I agree that there's nothing like growing vegetables. I can hardly bear to leave mine at the moment, especially as the peas have finally erupted into a wild mass of fat juicy pods late in the season. And my lettuce and borecole are worthy of prizes at the local show.

Sadly, it does seem that healthy eating is something that adults are far more interested in than the young – and Jamie's campaign to improve school dinners has hit the buffers. Up to one in four kids now shun them. The Government invested millions in trying to improve school catering, but persuading kids to change their eating habits when they often don't know how to use a knife and fork, and many probably never eat anything prepared from scratch at home, was always going to be difficult.

Ofsted found that out of 27 schools they visited, all had made efforts to make lunch healthier, but the depressing result was that in 19 of the schools, fewer children ate it. Children consumed fizzy drinks and rubbishy snacks on the way to and from school, some young girls skipped meals in order to lose weight, and many kids said that the portion sizes of the healthy meals left them feeling hungry. Ofsted has said that, in future, pupils should be consulted more when planning menus. Higher costs have been a deterrent, as well as badly designe d dining rooms where kids can waste ages queueing.

Predictably, the Lib Dems jumped on the bandwagon, claiming that the Government hasn't allocated enough money to the project – but is that really the answer? In Scotland yesterday SMPs voted to fund a trial scheme giving 35,000 primary school children free meals for their first three years. If successful, there are plans to roll it out across the country. This would work well in England too, because once you remove the element of choice from eating, the stigma of munching on a school dinner decreases enormously. Secondly, the Government should start teaching cookery in primary schools, and then make it compulsory for at least the first two years of secondary school. At the moment, many kids, and their parents, have no idea where food comes from. The level of ignorance is shocking.

Nutritionists know that it is possible to eat healthily on a limited budget using cheaper cuts of meat and locally sourced ingredients, and by cooking food for longer. In schools where the catering has been radically overhauled as a result of parent protests, this has been successful.

You have to make them part of the team that plans, cooks, and serves school meals. Too much choice is debilitating and unnecessary. Yesterday, the Academy of Culinary Arts, which campaigns to promote the eating of mutton, served a meal at the Ritz. This flavoursome meat was hard to find a couple of years ago, but more farmers are keeping ewes for longer – and butchers are starting to promote it.

More importantly, we need to make school meals the focal point of the educational day, where kids learn as they eat. Until you understand where food comes from, you just don't care about it – and that's the problem. School meals need rebranding, but it's not impossible.

Ballgowns on the barricades

Vivienne Westwood can't just design clothes – she has to issue a manifesto. That might have seemed relevant 30 years ago when she was the Queen of Punk, but I don't think her wealthy customers these days are quite so receptive. Her latest collection, shown in Paris this week, featured ballgowns covered in slogans, and the poor models were required to unfurl banners on the catwalk declaiming "Active Resistance to Propaganda".

She tells journalists that's she's going to vote Tory for the first time, in reaction to the Government's track record on human rights, personal freedom and national heritage. I can't see David Cameron signing the grand dame of British fashion up for electioneering in the shires. It could be scary.

* The findings of the review into the prison service are expected to be published in the next few weeks, but one tantalising leak suggests a long over-due change in the way women are punished. Up to 15 women's prisons in England and Wales would be closed, and replaced with small units housing only those serving long sentences for serious crimes. Those with short sentences would be housed in community prisons, where they would receive treatment for alcohol and drug abuse, if appropriate, followed by programmes to help them re-integrate into society. Existing prisons like Holloway could be sold off for housing or used for men.

At the moment, just over 4,400 women are in prison in England and Wales, which include 923 on remand and only 311 serving indeterminate sentences for crimes such as murder. The vast majority of women in jail have stolen to fund drug habits, or been coerced into crime by men. Around half are serving less than four years. This proposal should be implemented without delay.