Rose Prince: It's the parents, stupid: good eating habits begin at home

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The Independent Online

Jamie Oliver securing an extra £280m for school food from the Government is admirable, but neither he nor Tony Blair would emerge well if they tackled the heart of the trouble.

Jamie Oliver securing an extra £280m for school food from the Government is admirable, but neither he nor Tony Blair would emerge well if they tackled the heart of the trouble. While the dinner ladies and their employers take the rap, there's a group far more accountable who slithered away from the scene of the crime, leaving the problem with the educators. Meet the parents, the true creators of Britain's over-fed and under-nourished kids.

These children take their leads on food from their mums and dads, not from the school, and nothing will change unless politicians tackle kitchen negligence in the home.

Cue Oliver telling a mum who counts her pennies and spends them proudly on Turkey Twizzlers where she went wrong. A government task force assigned to come up with positive reaction to TV prime-time campaigns (they can always say they thought of it first) can't throw money at this one. While the British middle class can gain points telling an under-funded school how to feed people, they tap dance about doing the same with a family on a low income. Announcing to the nation that school food is disgusting finds a ready audience, but delving into the complexities of British class and food is an adventure Blair knows he would not survive.

When my husband, then a governor of our children's primary school, introduced a fresh fruit bar to the school - unlimited fruit at a cost to the parents of £1 per week for each child - the scheme disintegrated because most parents refused to pay. One said she would not pay because she bought her boy a peach every day at a cost of 60p, a statement she wore as proudly as her Burberry cap. Her child received free school meals.

The reality is, much as I have admired Oliver's passion, school food is the sideshow. Parents give endless time and money to their children, but all children need to know how to identify ingredients and learn basic food preparation in the home. It is a responsibility akin to providing a warm bed and clean clothing. It is also tied in with various other parental obligations, such as introducing children to the society and ritual of eating that they will never encounter in the hurry of the school canteen.

The child that rushes home from the Greenwich school that fed him a Mediterranean mélange walks into a home where branded junk has an air of chic. The hope is that some kind of osmosis at school dinners will make him shun his mother's idea of dinner. However, his mother does what she believes to be right; convenience food and poor dietary standards in the home now run across generations, and successive Governments have been complicit in keeping it this way. They have not deterred the food conglomerates from producing low-cost food that lacks integrity, even safety; they have not discouraged the consolidation of retailers, now selling the stuff at rock-bottom prices.

Low food inflation is a winner for the politicians - but the consumers lose heavily in the end. Taxpayers, via the health service, end up footing the bill for poor nourishment and bad practice.

The restoration of good home-food culture cannot come from a governing party unless it accepts that the real re-education has to happen in the home.

Rose Prince has recently published 'The New English Kitchen: Changing the Way You Shop, Cook and Eat' (Fourth Estate, £18.99)