Joan Smith: If Jamie Oliver can't change our eating habits, who can?

Related Topics

It's the story with everything: food, health, class and one of the country's biggest celebrities. Four years ago, Jamie Oliver launched a hugely popular campaign to banish junk food from school dinners; out went burgers, chips and fizzy drinks, and in came jacket potatoes, fresh fruit and yogurt. Oliver's television series Jamie's School Dinners was widely praised, and the Government came up with a £627m healthy-eating initiative for schools. Take-up of school dinners, which fell below half the nation's schoolchildren as long ago as 1984, was expected to rise as parents seized the opportunity to improve their kids' health.

Sadly, it hasn't turned out like that. Last week it emerged that there's been a small increase in the number of children eating school dinners in some areas, but nowhere near enough to meet the Government's target of half of all pupils nationwide. Sixty per cent of primary-school pupils are avoiding school dinners, and among older children it's two-thirds. In some parts of the country, take-up has actually fallen since the healthy-eating initiative began, leading the Lib Dems to claim that 400,000 fewer children are eating school dinners.

Even if that figure is an exaggeration, the overall reaction is hardly a ringing endorsement of the efforts of the Government or the TV chef. What people eat as adults tends to be decided by the meals they eat when they're growing up, and another set of statistics published last week confirms a significant North-South divide. Families in Scotland and the North of England buy more crisps, processed food and chips; they are fatter and die earlier than people in the South, who spend more money on fruit and vegetables. In Stockton-on-Tees in the North-east, one in six children starting school is already clinically obese, compared with only one in 25 in West Sussex.

This suggests either that substantial numbers of people ignore health education campaigns or – as some campaigners have claimed for years – that they have developed what amounts to an addiction to junk food. When Oliver began his school dinners campaign, some mothers in South Yorkshire responded by delivering takeaway food over the wall to children who didn't like the healthy alternative on offer in school. Oliver was so angry that he started cookery classes in Rotherham, showing sceptical locals how to prepare nutritious meals and celebrating several high-profile conversions to healthy eating.

But a report last week from the Association of Public Health Observatories shows how far there is to go: Rotherham is worse than the national average on 27 out of 31 indicators of public health, including obesity in children and adults, life expectancy and binge drinking. It's also poorer, reflecting the central role of class in determining what people eat and the state of their health.

Junk food is a killer. So is over-eating in any form, and not getting enough exercise. Most people know this, even if they're not aware of new research which appears to confirm the health benefits of a dramatically restricted diet; under-eating seems to protect against cancer and cardio-vascular disease, and slows the ageing process in monkeys. But advising people to embark on a calorie-restricted diet is a non-starter in a society where excess consumption has become – and continues to be, despite the Government's considerable efforts – the norm.

It may be cheering to discover from this mass of statistics that celebrities don't have as much influence as we'd all assumed. But if someone as successful and ubiquitous as Jamie Oliver can't persuade people to change their eating habits, I don't know what will.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn