British Celebrity Chef Petitions His Country For Better School Food

By Rhea R. Borja — April 12, 2005 3 min read
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Veggie pasta instead of burgers and fries. Low-fat sorbet instead of high-fat ice cream. Lean chicken instead of deep-fried and processed Turkey Twizzlers.

Popular chef Jamie Oliver, left, listens to British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a March meeting at 10 Downing Street in London.

Students in Britain, a country with rising obesity rates, will soon be eating more healthy school meals. They can thank British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Mr. Oliver, the telegenic and tousle-haired 29-year old cooking phenom who stars in a popular television show called “The Naked Chef,” delivered a 271,677-signature petition asking for improved school nutrition to British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office on March 30. It was the culmination of Mr. Oliver’s weeks-long, highly publicized Internet and television campaign to improve the quality of school meals.

On the same day, Ruth Kelly, the British secretary of state for education and skills, announced an initiative equivalent to $525.7 million to improve the quality of school meals.

The money “will make a real difference,” she said in a written statement. Ms. Kelly also disputed the popular notion that Mr. Oliver whipped up so much public support that Prime Minister Blair, in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, was forced to increase school food spending. The government has been working for months to improve school meals, she said in press accounts.

Under the new initiative, the British government will increase spending on school food per elementary student from about 37 pence (69 cents) to at least 50 pence (84 cents), starting in September. For secondary students, the government will increase spending to at least 60 pence ($1.13) per student.

In comparison, U.S. schools receive 21 cents to $3.89 per student from the federal school lunch program, depending on the percentage of free and reduced-price meals served in a school.

Included in the British initiative is an investment equivalent to $112.2 million to advise and support schools and parents on improving meal standards, as well as to train school kitchen-staff members on hygiene, nutrition, and meal preparation.

Documentary Spurs Changes

“It is certainly very positive,” said Mr. Oliver of the government’s new spending, according to his school food Web site,

“[It’s] 20 years too late,” he added, “but we are talking about the right sort of money. Unfortunately, it has taken a documentary and really the hearts and emotions of the kids and families we filmed to touch the nation.”

That recent documentary series, the highly watched “Jamie’s School Dinners,” follows Mr. Oliver as he struggles to change the eating habits of teenagers who’d rather eat greasy hamburgers than lemon-roasted chicken.

Mr. Oliver took over the kitchen at the ethnically diverse 1,324-student Kidbrooke School, a secondary school in a high-poverty London suburb. He promptly ditched the junk food on the menu and created fresh meals from scratch.

Initially, that did not sit well with many students. They refused to eat Mr. Oliver’s nutritious, organic food. One student who did vomited after eating fresh vegetables. And some others demonstrated loudly against the change, said Nora Sands, the school’s head cook, in an online interview with Britain’s Channel 4, which broadcast the series.

But eventually, the Kidbrooke students came around. “Now we have 500 to 600 kids [who] come in and enjoy this lovely food every day,” said Ms. Sands in the Channel 4 interview. “They take their salad, yogurt and fruit and … they eat the lot.”

In Britain, 16 percent of children ages 2 to 15 are overweight, according to a 2002 national health survey. In the United States, 16 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight, according to federal government statistics.

As it is, about 83 percent of secondary-school meal programs in Britain meet minimum nutritional standards, and 91 percent offer vegetables or fruit, according to government statistics. However, only 6 percent of students choose the vegetable or fruit option.

The TV documentary galvanized thousands of parents and educators to pressure the government to improve school food, as well as spurred them to prepare healthy meals at home, according to Mr. Oliver’s Web site.

“My daughter is desperately fussy and I always end up backing down when the tears come,” said one parent on the Web site’s reader forum. “I know that it is worth the battle and I will stick to my guns even more.”

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