Chefs cook up 'nuts and bolts' plan for school meals
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver captured the nation's attention with his crusade to improve school food, calling for canteens to stop serving Turkey Twizzlers and fried food. But although the campaign was high profile, it did not deliver a "system-wide" plan to transform school food, according to the chefs behind the latest government drive to improve students' diets.
Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent (pictured above), co-founders of the Leon restaurant chain, said that although Mr Oliver was good at "banging the drum" for better food, they would be responsible for understanding the "nuts and bolts" of the whole system and delivering lasting change.
The restaurateurs, recruited by education secretary Michael Gove, are currently drawing up their "school food plan" to set out what constitutes a good school dinner and what will get more children eating the right things.
But during a TES webchat, Mr Vincent said what they were trying to do was "very different" from what Mr Oliver achieved.
"There was no plan before the school food (plan)," Mr Vincent said, adding: "I think that Jamie - who is absolutely brilliant, an amazing guy - I think he would acknowledge that what we have done is bring a systematic, system-wide approach to bring all those people together to hopefully have a two- to three-year implementation plan that everyone is signed up to."
Mr Vincent and Mr Dimbleby have been meeting with Labour politicians Sharon Hodgson, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on School Food, and shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg as they write the plan.
After Mr Oliver's campaign began in 2005, takeup of school meals rose and between 2006 and 2009 new nutritional standards were introduced for school meals. Cookery lessons are now compulsory for 11- to 14 year-olds and chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks are banned in most schools.
Mr Vincent said that he and Mr Dimbleby were now working with Mr Oliver and others on how to improve school food "on a very systematic basis".
"If Jamie is the conscience of food, banging the drum, shouting loudly about it, we ... think in the meantime we've put on our full body suits and we've actually stepped inside the whole system to try to understand the nuts and bolts of (how) everything works," he said.
Mr Dimbleby added: "Our dream is to stand somewhere with Michael Gove, Jamie Oliver, Stephen Twigg, Sharon Hodgson and the head of the headteachers' union and say, 'Right, here is the plan, this is what it is and we agree it', rather than throwing it up in the air."
Mr Oliver has been highly critical of the current government, particularly when Mr Gove made the decision that academies would be exempt from school nutritional standards.
Linda Cregan, chief executive designate of the Children's Food Trust charity, said it had been Mr Oliver's intention to "raise the issue" and the job of her organisation to make changes. "It is fair to say we did have a clear plan based on what could work," she said.
"Jamie estimated that work could take 10 years. It started in 2006 and went on until 2011; things started to change when the government changed. What was happening was making a massive difference."
Ms Cregan said improving meals was a "20-year issue" because "you can't change people's attitudes overnight".
"There has been a massive amount of work done and the worst thing now would be schools stopping doing things because they are waiting to see what's changing," she said.
According to research by the Children's Food Trust, the takeup of school meals rose in 2011-12, equating to 173,000 more children eating healthy food at school than in the previous year.
Levels of salt, fat and sugar were all down in the average primary school lunch, and children were eating more portions of fruit and vegetables.
In secondary schools, the proportion of students having chips with their lunch was down from 43 per cent in 2004 to 7 per cent in 2011, after the introduction of the school nutritional standards. The average school meal is about a third lower in salt, fat and sugar.