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May 19, 2006

Let them Eat Kale

The Economist:

Plans to improve school meals are causing havoc

JUST over a year ago, Jamie Oliver, a camera-friendly chef, called for a revolution in school kitchens. In a television series, he chronicled the decline in school lunches and showed that junk food-addicted children could be taught to tuck into what he calls “pukka nosh”. It proved a traumatic experience for the young gourmands, some of whom demonstrated for the return of chips and burgers. Mr Oliver's antics have also tweaked the government, upset some dinner ladies and shaken the catering market.

“Jamie's School Dinners” galvanised parents, who demanded that schools ditch grotesque inventions such as the Turkey Twizzler and adopt wholesome fare such as shepherd's pie and lentil soup. Worried about a looming general election, the government hastily responded to Mr Oliver's demands. Ruth Kelly, who was then the education secretary, promised to ban junk food in schools and asked a panel of experts to suggest nutritional guidelines.

The panel recommended that schools serve more freshly-cooked food containing less fat, sugar and salt. A sub-committee suggested tougher rules for vending machines and food served at breakfast and after-school clubs. The government's own targets are expected to be broadly in line with those of the panel.

Pressure from parents and the media is already changing school meals, not always in good ways. One effect is that the number of pupils eating school lunches has declined. The Local Authority Caterers' Association reports that the number of meals served has declined by 12.5% since last year, rendering some contracts unsustainable. It blames Mr Oliver's scare tactics for the exodus. More worryingly, some dinner ladies are threatening to strike. They complain that they are being asked to peel mountains of carrots and marinate meat to meet the demand for fresh food. But their schedule still assumes they just open packets and heat up the contents.

The government promised councils and schools an extra £280m over three years, but the providers, as well as the expert panel, say it is not enough. Last year some private contractors were shamed into pushing up standards. Now they say the money is insufficient to sustain the improvements. One caterer, Sodexho, threatened last month to put what the catering industry calls “shaped food products” (such as Fish Octopus) back on menus in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire if more cash was not forthcoming. The councils paid up. Other contractors are negotiating tougher deals. Initial Catering, for example, is demanding risk-sharing clauses, which trigger fines if the number of meals falls below an agreed level.

Some councils are struggling to attract any bids for catering contracts beginning in the autumn. Sheffield City Council has received one bid to run its school meals service, while Wokingham District Council had just two. Bracknell Forest Council has received no bids. Kent County Council, which broke up a single contract covering its 405 schools into 22 clusters with the objective of encouraging smaller players, received final bids for contracts covering just 70 schools. It is now entering another round of contract negotiations.

The 14 councils in England that have no school kitchens and simply give sandwiches to children who are entitled to free school meals are worst off. They are expected to provide hot food by 2008. One local authority describes the task as “enormous”; another says it is impossible.

Amid general upheaval, however, some companies are flourishing. Ashlyns Organic farm, in Essex, is training school cooks who now need to do more than heat up processed food. Simon Owen, a chef, says that he teaches them basic skills such as how to chop an onion. The farm already supplies and advises 25 Essex schools that run their own kitchens and is signing new contracts with schools in London.

Two weeks ago Mr Oliver won an award for his television series and again denounced the government's inertia on school meals. He has proved a good demagogue. But his revolution, like many others, has turned out to be a messy affair.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at May 19, 2006 7:36 AM
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