Is Shepherd’s Pie posh? Is spaghetti Bolognese? That’s what one parent told Jamie Oliver when he was filming his new documentary about school meals. Unburdening herself of this inverted culinary snobbery, this mother proceeded to let her one-year-old child feed from a Coca-Cola bottle. Oliver’s furious reaction is immortalised in the film.
“I’ve spent two years being PC about parents,” he rages. “Now is the time to say, ‘If you’re giving your young children fizzy drinks you’re an arsehole, you’re a tosser. If you give them bags of crisps you’re an idiot.”
“I get fucking bored of being polite about this,” he says now, looking customarily scruffy and tired at the Channel 4 HQ after a preview screening. “I’m not saying that these parents are bad, they just don’t know any better. They haven’t been taught by their own families.”
Oliver’s campaign on children’s diets started four years ago as he found himself being asked again and again about school meals. “I was saying, ‘they’re awful, dreadful’, like every other chef,” he recalls. “But I realised that in my position I could do more than that.”
The role of parents comes increasingly into focus in the new film, which airs next week on Channel 4. But its main purpose is to consider changes arising as a result of last year’s extraordinary, Bafta-winning series, Jamie’s School Dinners.
These include strict nutritional standards for school food. Sweeping regulations ban all sales of fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate on school premises, and allow deep-fried items like chips to be served no more than twice a week. Hot dogs, burgers and Turkey Twizzlers are replaced by high-quality meats, oily fish – and at least two daily portions of fruit and vegetables.
The new rules are based on recommendations by the School Meals Review Panel and the School Food Trust, both launched last year after Oliver delivered a petition comprising 271,677 signatures to Downing Street. They also take account of warnings from the Department of Health that 22 per cent of girls and 19 per cent of boys will be obese by 2010 if nothing is done.
Travelling round the country, Oliver finds serious problems. One of the consequences of his success last time round was that parents took children off school meals: within six months, take-up dropped by 9 per cent. Bad news: this meant less money and scope for improvements.
In the Greenwich school where he first met dinner lady Nora Sands – the Sancho Panza to his Quixote – Oliver finds that the termination of lucrative tuck-shop sales has pushed her kitchens into financial deficit. Meanwhile children bring rubbish to school.
“I’ve had a look inside a lot of lunchboxes,” Oliver says now. “I have seen kids of four or five, same age as mine, with a cold, half-eaten McDonalds in their lunchbox and a load of crisps and a can of Red Bull. It makes me want to cry. If that kid comes home and the teacher says he seems a bit tired they probably give him another tin of Red Bull. You might as well give him a line of coke. And I haven’t seen that just once but many times. There is a lot about money and poverty here, but I’ve seen this at rich schools as well as poor ones.”
Worst of all, the new programme reveals that a dozen or so counties across the UK have no kitchens in their schools. Altogether these account for about half a million children.
In 1906 local authorities were given the right to supply school meals. In 1944, that became mandatory. In 1980, the Thatcher government made it discretionary again, dumped nutritional standards and removed the notion of a fixed price. At least 12 authorities gave up altogether, preferring to do the statutory minium – providing packed lunches to children entitled to free school meals.
In Lincolnshire, Oliver learns that many pupils come to school without eating any breakfast, eat the same sandwich for lunch every day, and as often as not, at the end of the day, go without a cooked meal at home.
He’s proud of the new film, he says. “But don’t go thinking it was a pleasure to make it. It was quite miserable and sad and dark. Some of the things we saw we weren’t able to get permission to broadcast. We live in Great Britain, and I think it’s a fucking great country. But to allow our kids to grow up and form habits that are wrong and unsafe is criminal.”
Can reluctant parents be reformed? “Apart from going through the press and cookery programmes I don’t know,” he shrugs. “That’s why I’m so passionate about school dinners and home economics.”
Under the government’s new proposals, any pupil who fulfils 24 hours in a voluntary course at lunchtimes or after school will be awarded a “license to cook”. Oliver thinks the lessons should be mandatory. “The syllabus we have at the moment is ca-ca. Whoever developed it needs a slap. You can pass a food technology course without having to cook.
“When kids leave school at 16 they should be able to survive. Know how to buy food economically, and freeze things, and cook a roast and a bleeding curry and a stir fry. You can learn all you like about chemistry or physics but at the end of the day you still have to eat.”
We all share responsibility. That includes the food industry. “The supermarket is like the modern church, people go there every week.” To repay this loyalty, Oliver says they should show “a bit of integrity”.
“It’s not just about cleaning up their own label products. I think that they have to get a bit Nazi about the outside labels too. I work for Sainsburys and I talk to them regularly about this. I tell them what is aggravating me, and every month there seems to be more boxes being ticked.”
Oliver welcomes a vigorous nanny state. “You can’t always ask kids what they want. If you did that in an English class I’d have said I want to read Viz and porn, instead of Shakespeare. In our wisdom we don’t do that. So why do it with food, at lunchtimes?”
In the programme he confronts the education secretary, Alan Johnson, “Why can’t we ban junk food altogether?” Johnson suggests that might infringe civil liberties. “We ban drugs,” counters Oliver.
“There does need to be somebody mummyish or daddyish, saying, ‘Fuck me, they’re getting bigger, they’re getting fatter, they’re dropping dead younger’. This is the first generation of kids that is going to die before their parents. Someone has to get strong, someone has to be the governor, and you don’t necessarily have to like them.”
In the finale, Oliver sees Tony Blair in Downing Street and the prime minister agrees to all his demands. There’s a further £240m to subsidise the new healthy eating regime in schools up to 2011, £2m to establish training kitchens for staff, and a fund for building kitchens.
“That last scene almost makes me cry,” says Oliver. But he doesn’t believe enough money has gone into the fund for rebuilding kitchens.
“I’m a big gob, but I do know a bit about this because I’ve lived and breathed it for four years. And I’m in this for the long term. If I wasn’t, I would soon get a kick up the arse from the press. And rightly so.”