How Jamie and school meal fascists turn kids into junk food addicts

24 September 2006
The Mail On Sunday

Her words are enough to make Jamie Oliver tear his hair out. Joanne, 14, a pupil at a large comprehensive in London, is sucking her Triple Power Push Pop as she explains to me why she insists on stuffing her mouth with such sweets.
"I don’t buy any of the stuff in the canteen, it’s disgusting,’ she says. "The drinks are vile – there’s no sugar in them. And as for the food, well, it’s all salads and vegetables and stuff – and I don’t like that.
"So I stock up before school on crisps and lollipops and chews, then at lunchtime I go and eat them where none of them nosy teachers is looking."
Joanne’s friends laugh and agree. They say that since the school got ‘sick-bag food’, they never go to the canteen. They much prefer to munch their sticky, fatty snacks in secret where no ‘health police’ can find them.

It’s not quite what the Government intended when it set up the healthy food initiative. New legislation, which came into effect three weeks ago, demands that school caterers ensure pupils are provided with ‘high-quality meat, poultry or oily fish on a regular basis’ and that a ‘minimum’ of two portions of fruit and vegetables accompany every meal.

Prompted by the wrath of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who highlighted the horrors of junk-food school meals in his School Dinners programmes last year, the Government has pumped hundreds of millions of pounds into providing healthy school meals.

I am staggered by the change I have seen in my own secondary school canteen. I have always quite liked the food there but this term I have found it to be of a much higher quality – the pasta and rice dishes, in particular, are delicious.

In common with all state schools, sweets, chocolates and crisps have been taken out of the vending machines and off the meal counters. Bowls of fresh fruit have replaced racks of doughnuts with jugs of water and sugar-free drinks being served in place of bottles of fizzy pop.

But the Government overlooked one crucial point when it instituted these changes – and that is that changing the law doesn’t change children’s minds. Any teacher will tell you that children don’t learn much when they’re being taught by fascists. While children’s food intake is very heavily policed in school, outside the gates they are free to do what they want.

Sweet shop owners around the country must be rubbing their hands with glee. Where I live, shopkeepers tell me of a huge upsurge in business before and after school. They’re raking in money by the bucket load but the school canteen coffers are virtually empty.

One school caterer I know called Jane, said: "It’s a real disaster for us. We’re losing £70 a day compared with last year." Explaining that the new guidelines mean food preparation is much more labour intensive than before, she added: "I’ve had to hire more staff to make the food but the kids are just not coming along. The canteen is half-full at lunchtimes. I feel in a state of despair."

So where are the children? At Rawmarsh Comprehensive in South Yorkshire, they have been pressing against the school railings every lunchtime reaching for chips, burgers and fizzy drinks that two enterprising but misguided mothers have been serving to them in an attempt to give them what they want to eat.

In many other schools, where headteachers have taken the hardline decision to ban pupils from bringing sweets and chocolates on to the premises, the rebellion against healthy eating is much more secretive and I have heard about a number of pupils who are buying junk food before they come to school and, like Joanne and her friends, consuming it where they cannot be seen by the teachers.
Some 16-year-old pupils I have heard about are even running a thriving black market in mini-cans of fizzy drinks at their school in Surrey. "The drinks are c*** and expensive in school so you can make quite a killing if you buy a batch of pop wholesale and flog it at 30p a shot," one budding entrepreneur told me.
But not all children are sugar junkies. Many others are in favour of the changes. Their only problem is the price – they simply can’t afford it, with the new regulations adding up to 40p to the price of a canteen meal.

As a consequence of the higher prices and dubious popularity of school meals, many parents have started providing packed lunches for their children. This has set the noses of the control freaks twitching and their fingers pointing accusingly at packed lunches which aren’t healthy.

Shelley, a parent I spoke to in Bristol, said that her daughter’s primary school had been hijacked by ‘food fascists’ – teachers who remove the chocolate biscuits and fizzy drinks from her daughter’s lunchbox and reprimand her for attempting to eat such ‘junk food’. Shelley was furious because she had supplied the drink and biscuits as a treat – normally her daughter eats healthy foods.

Other schools are even using computers to monitor each child’s daily intake. Heywood Community High School in Lancashire logs what pupils choose for their dinner and a summary of their intake is included in their end-of-year report. Each pupil is identified by means of a biometric thumbprint scanner. This is really scary stuff.

The problem is that the whole initiative was started by Jamie Oliver, who gave the Government a very big kick up the backside when his Channel 4 programmes highlighted how school kitchens had been neglected for decades. But while Oliver may know how to cook, he certainly doesn’t know how to educate.

His yobbish style and approach has cowed and influenced many politicians, educators and bureaucrats throughout the country and his abrasive imperatives have been adopted by the food police in our schools and our Government.

While these people stop short of calling parents ‘tossers’ and effing and blinding at anyone who disagrees with them – as Oliver does – their sanctimonious injunctions are eerily similar to his.
As any good teacher will tell you, knee-jerk reactions, rigid rules and blind dogma are not good educational tools. Issuing orders is not the way to win over reluctant children. Such pupils need to be coaxed into eating healthily in a careful, caring fashion. They should be introduced to eating vegetables and fruit gradually.

A chilling doomsday scenario could unfold if the Government isn’t careful – the canteens could go bankrupt and close down, leaving all pupils to munch on whatever they like. If this happens, many pupils will not even get a glimpse of healthy food. The whole initiative would have then produced exactly the opposite effect of what it intended – there will be a total free-for-all, with our schools becoming awash with sugary sweets and fat-filled fodder.

It is time the Government stopped reaching for quick fixes and taking orders from yobs such as Jamie Oliver before our school canteens close down and chaos descends. There are already major warning signs with many canteens heavily in debt and children surreptitiously chomping on goodness-knows-what at lunchtime.

It is time the food fascists were knocked off their self-satisfied perch and some real educators were called in to rescue the situation.

Francis Gilbert is an author and teaches at the Coopers’ Company and Coborn School in Upminster, Essex. His most recent book, Yob Nation, (Portrait; £10.99) is out now.

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