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

Recruitment Genius: Careers Advisor

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Financial Controller

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an experienced Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / New Business Development / Full or Part Time

£20000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global Events and Exhibiti...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for someone wi...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Daily catch-up: the Labour leadership election hasn’t yet got to grips with why the party lost

John Rentoul
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific