I love it when a Food Plan comes together
Ten years ago, I entered a school kitchen for the first time in my life and came face-to-face with the formidable Nora Sands, dinner lady at Kidbrooke School (now Corelli College) in South London. Anyone who watched television programme Jamie's School Dinners knows that Nora and I became good friends, fighting together on the front line for better school food.
Now in 2014, thanks to the hard work of everyone involved in the government-supported School Food Plan, including countless headteachers, school cooks, teachers and parents up and down the country, we are finally at a critical turning point.
From this September, cooking will for the first time be part of England's compulsory curriculum. New and improved food standards are coming into force, and school meals will be universally free for all infant children in England.
Of course, I know these changes haven't been easy for some schools to implement, especially with budgets under pressure and the demands on teachers never-ending. There are loads of changes in the new curriculum that require space in the timetable. Preparing for the roll-out of millions of free meals, too, is no small feat. I thank you for sticking with it and helping to make a difference.
Yes, a handful of schools will no doubt not be ready for the new term, and I'm sure it will be those ones that end up getting media coverage, particularly in those newspapers that like to celebrate failure. But I also know that the overwhelming majority are prepared and have really embraced the challenge.
What this proves to me is what I've known all along: that headteachers and school cooks passionately believe that feeding children a nutritionally balanced meal in the middle of the day, or a good breakfast before school, will help concentration and behaviour - and therefore children's capacity for learning - while also improving school results.
It's incredibly important for us to keep this momentum going: we can't go back to the dark days and waste all the hard work we have put in so far. With the general election coming up next year, I find it shocking that no party is showing leadership in trying to reduce childhood obesity and improve public health. It's a shameful state of affairs and we're all suffering as a result. The health service is buckling under the strain of diet-related disease and children as young as 8 are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Most of this is preventable.
The reality is that diet-related diseases are shortening our lives and costing us a fortune. Look at the statistics: one in four children in the UK starts primary school at the age of 4 either overweight or obese; one in three leaves at 11 either overweight or obese. So the question is no longer "how did we let it get so bad?" but "how do we fix this urgently?" The new School Food Plan is an excellent place to start.
So what am I doing to help? I will continue to campaign and do my bit to help schools bring food education to life. My foundation is soon to launch the Kitchen Garden Project - a set of resources that can be used by teachers in almost any classroom setting to get children growing, cooking and learning about food.
We have been working with schools for a few years now and have seen amazing results. All the research shows that children who plant their own fruit and vegetables are far more likely to eat them, and that if kids are taught about nutrition from an early age, their food choices are always better. We have seen this first hand, and we hear it over and over from teachers, parents and children.
The Kitchen Garden Project will soon be open to any school in the UK that would like to get involved, via a brand new website: www.jamieskitchengarden.org. Our site will be packed with lesson plans for growing, cooking and nutrition, with recipes tailored to children, plus fact sheets, video content and communities. You can get a free taster of this cornucopia at www.tesconnect.comjamieskitchengarden.
We have invested a lot of time in making sure the resources are flexible and simple to use, so that even teachers in schools without access to a teaching kitchen or a vegetable garden can easily deliver fun and inspiring lessons. The materials can be adapted for a range of age groups and abilities - it's all about helping teachers to make food simple, exciting and relevant to their own school environment.
Send lunchboxes packing
And what about school meals? I think schools that have been prepared for the new changes will find it relatively straightforward. One of the challenges, of course, is to inspire children to try school food instead of opting for packed lunches; this is something that individual institutions will need to tackle as they see fit.
Everyone working in school food knows that it's almost impossible to create a nutritionally balanced packed lunch. Shockingly, only 1 per cent of lunchboxes are considered to meet these standards. School food is by far the best option for parents but we need to make them aware of this - we must show them that a free school meal is far better, both economically and nutritionally, than something brought in from home.
How headteachers do this is up to them. When I was working on Jamie's School Dinners, I invited parents to come in after school to try the food on offer, and it definitely had the desired effect in transforming their opinion.
Many parents aren't aware that things have significantly improved, so it's our job to show them. Ten years ago we were looking at breaded shapes of unidentifiable meat and chips several days a week - school food was in the gutter. In 2014, it is something to be proud of and has an exciting and sustainable future, so long as everyone works together to make sure that the School Food Plan succeeds.
My hope - my dream - is that 10 years from now, we can look back with our heads held high because child obesity rates are falling and we are raising a generation of happier, healthier young people who are clued-up about food and who will continue to lead future generations towards better health. I'm asking for your help and support in making this a reality.
Jamie Oliver's Kitchen Garden Project will soon be launching a digital resource hub for UK primary teachers. For more details, see www.jamieskitchengarden.org, or visit www.tesconnect.comjamieskitchengarden for a taster pack