Jamie leaves a nasty aftertaste

Observations on food by <strong>Brendan O'Neill</strong>

It is more than a year since Jamie Oliver launched his jihad against junk food, berating schools in his series Jamie's School Dinners for feeding kids "shit" and demanding that the government "do something". When Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, duly banned "bangers and burgers" in schools, Oliver became St Jamie of the School Dinner, with one columnist gushing about this "decent man's heroic battle against an uncaring, bureaucratic system".

A year on, are school canteens happier and healthier places? Hardly. Dinner ladies are threatening to strike; catering companies are worried about going bust; and parents are opting for unhealthier packed lunches. Thanks, Jamie.

"Overnight, we were expected to start seasoning meat and peeling hundreds of carrots - but that takes time and we're not being paid for it," says Cathy Stewart, a dinner lady in Hackney, London, and a rep for the Transport and General Workers' Union. "They want dinner ladies to become professional chefs. But they won't give us the resources we need. We have outdated equipment and we don't have enough staff."

Oliver may have had a feisty dinner lady as a sidekick in his Channel 4 series but little consideration was given to the impact overhauling the system would have on the rest of the people involved. On the "Jamie's School Dinners" website, a poll asks: "If the government put more money into school dinners, where should it go?" Seventy-six per cent answered "To subsidise better, fresh ingredients" but only 5 per cent responded "To dinner ladies' pay".

"They think it's just a matter of piling schools with chicken and veg, but what about the ladies who have to turn that into meals?" says Stewart. Dinner ladies are staying late to season meat for the next day and coming in early to peel veg and aren't being paid any extra money. Many are still on a measly £4.80 an hour.

Stewart is balloting for industrial action. Dinner ladies in 30 schools in east London, as well as in Cheshire and Nottinghamshire, are considering a walkout. "We think it's a good idea to give kids fresh food. And some of us were doing that before Jamie Oliver," she says. "All we're saying is pay us for the time we work."

Meanwhile, bosses at catering companies are panicking. Over the past year they have seen a 12.5 per cent drop in the number of kids eating school dinners - that's 400,000 children no longer having a hot meal in school time. This includes areas where the school dinners have been made healthier: in Gloucestershire, for example, the number of primary school children taking meals has fallen from 11,600 to 9,800.

Kevin McKay, chair of the Local Authority Caterers' Association, is worried that providing hot meals might soon cease to be viable. Parents watched Oliver describe school dinners as not fit for a dog, he says, and unsurprisingly opted for packed lunches instead.

Yet a survey of the eating habits of just over 1,000 secondary school children in England and Wales, published in the British Medical Journal in November, concluded that school dinners offered better nutritional value than most packed lunches. Kids on school dinners had lower levels of blood cholesterol, blood sugar, insulin and leptin.

Oliver's war may have made good telly, but it has confused parents and brought hardship to dinner ladies. If we want better school meals, we need a rational debate rather than scary stories - and some collective thought and action rather than a sudden decree from above about how things must change.

Brendan O'Neill is deputy editor of spiked (www.spiked-online.com)