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Jamie’s school dinner howler

Posted by Richard D North in Campaigning / Food / Media / Politics on 9 April 2008

Why we posted this: The Daily Telegraph usefully helped us see that Jamie Oliver’s “successful” school dinners campaign may have done harm as well as good (as well as being loud-mouthed and sometimes misinformed).

The original story:
Jamie may have spelled end of school meals
The Daily Telegraph
By Liz Lightfoot, Education Editor

The essence of this story:
In 2005 Jamie Oliver, a restaurateur and TV chef, presented a TV campaign against “school dinners” on the grounds that they were cheap and nasty. There was a panic, as parents, schools and politicians woke up to the way many school canteens had been allowed to provide the kind of food children like (fatty, sweet and salty fast food) whilst many students were actually leaving schools at lunchtime and buying fast food and snacking on that.

The government, promised a small sum of money (£212m over 3 years) to put things right.

Very famously, Oliver made a villain of a lunch ingredient called a Turkey Twizzler, from Bernard Matthews. The firm pointed out that their product was wholesome and unexceptional.

The fallout from the Oliver series was (1) that take-up of school dinners immediately fell (that’s to say, people turned away from the food he excoriated) and (2) as healthier, more expensive food has come onto school menus, take-up of that type of food has stayed low.

There was some informed comment (especially from Prue Leith of the School Food Trust) which suggested that school kids are in the midst of a big cultural change but that we should be patient because in the long-term, acceptance of healthier food would improve.

livingissues comment:
The media like to whip up campaigns which make them, the broadcasters, seem edgy and effective – and they enjoy the power which comes to those who can see petitions and confrontations in Downing Street, and politicians (“Them”) brought to heel by “The People” (“Us”). This is part of the old war between journalism and The State. But it is also part of a new febrile process in which institutional authority is dismissed as stuffiness.

Several things are worth remembering. (1) Oliver wasn’t altogether wrong and in the long-run his sort of ideas will probably prevail. (2) Healthier and nicer food may become acceptable and available to British school children quicker because of Oliver. (3) This sort of campaign plainly works, at least some of the time. But, and here’s the sting: (4) conventional politics matter and every time one of these TV populism campaigns gets going and even succeeds, we can worry over the way conventional, institutional politics has been damaged.

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