The subject of food in schools is currently a fashionable one. Jamie Oliver's latest project is a TV programme called Oliver's Army, in which he will inspire a group of young children about the wonders of cooking. Gary Rhodes, too, has said that what he cares about most is improving food in schools. Many other famous chefs are becoming deeply or shallowly involved in the issue.
Don't let this put you off. These celebrities posing sweetly with children and wooden spoons are actually part of a much more substantial concatenation of groups now active in Britain, all trying to do something about the state of food in schools, both on the curriculum and in children's tummies. This column is the introduction to an intermittent series of articles I will be writing over the next few months on various aspects of the topic. If any readers have views or information about it, please contact me (c/o the NS or at firstname.lastname@example.org).
What is eaten and what is taught about eating - these are the two essential problems. While MPs eat oversubsidised platefuls of grilled fish and herby couscous in the oasis of Portcullis House, many children are getting by on a packet of crisps and can of Coke from a vending machine. Others, however, receive better lunches than the MPs. School dinners vary colossally from school to school. Some are now benefiting from so-called Snags - school nutrition action groups - encouraged by the Health Education Trust to oversee every aspect of food in a given school. There are also various initiatives getting children to eat more fruit, including the NHS national fruit scheme, which has pledged to give "every child in nursery and aged between four and six in infant schools" a free piece of fruit every day by 2004. So far, this scheme is reaching only 80,000 four- to six-year-olds.
As for the subject of "food technology", in theory this is a compulsory part of the national curriculum from the ages of five to 11 (Key Stages 1 and 2). In practice, however, even in this age group, "food technology" is grossly underfunded and erratically taught. Why should it be taught anyway? Wouldn't children be better off learning to cook from their mothers, as every great French chef seems to have done? This argument might be plausible, were it not true that British mothers are themselves so clueless in the kitchen. A recent Mintel report found that 70 per cent of parents with young children said they did not know enough about nutrition to feed their children healthily.
The question is not so much whether food should be taught in the first place, but whether, if food were taught properly, you would ever need any other subjects on the curriculum at all, at least at primary level. At the moment, the Key Stage 2 tests for 11-year-olds cover only reading, writing, spelling, mathematics, mental arithmetic and science. You could cover all this and much more if, instead of all the flimflam of the national curriculum, children focused on learning about food seriously. Through food, you could learn chemistry, physics, history, economics, languages, handicrafts, agriculture, horticulture, aesthetics . . . What's more, children might actually want to learn what they were being taught, if their knowledge had immediate, and delicious, application.
One enterprise that recognises the huge potential in teaching children about food is the Focus on Food campaign, whose ultimate goal is to "see the government write food education back into the national curriculum". It has seven basic demands, including making food technology compulsory until the age of 14, and getting the government to match pound for pound the money that it raises (to learn more, go to www.waitrose.com/focusonfood). In the meantime, the campaign travels around the country in a huge bus that converts into a classroom with kitchens. To help teachers, Focus on Food also produces a magazine called Cook School. In the first issue, there is an outstanding feature on apples, demonstrating that the study of food is universally appealing without being trivial or simple. In addition to food history and the science of cooking apples, it contains advice on buying and storage, beautifully clear photographs of different apples, recipes, a critique of the standardised apple industry, information on the Common Ground campaign to save the British orchard apple, and a wonderful map of British apples, including such rare delights as Devonshire Quarrenden, Beauty of Moray and Bloody Butcher.
However, a few bits of Cook School are disappointing, such as a recipe for muffins that gets the instructions and quantities wrong, and another recipe for breakfast "bruschetta" that requires you wastefully to heat up the oven full blast first thing in the morning, just in order to brown a few slices of French bread covered in drained baked beans and cheese. But then I suddenly realised that the person who devised this recipe must themselves have suffered a deficient education in food - just one more illustration of how necessary the work is that Focus on Food and others are now doing.