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"Stop poisoning our children..."

Martin Wicks



These were the words of a woman on Jamie Oliver’s “Feed me better” web site. Oliver’s TV programme and his campaign for a “School Dinners Revolution” have brought to light one of the scandals of British society. Perhaps it has come as a shock to some people to discover that 37p is devoted to each child eating school meals. Of course, many children eat junk at home as well. But the statistics tell a story. Over 15% of British children are obese, whilst 92% eat more saturated fats than are the recommended maximum intake for adults.


Despite the fact that he was polite when talking about Minister Ruth Kelly, on Radio 4, Oliver pointed out the obvious. The junk food should be stopped rather than ‘standards’ improved. Children should be provided with fresh food, freshly cooked. His programme shows how this can be done. But this being a New Labour government, desperate not to be seen as ‘anti-business’, Kelly wants to restrict the amount of fat, salt and sugar in the slop dished out at schools and continue to feed children with the processed foods which have made the big food companies very rich indeed.


The government has set up ‘new school trust’ supposedly to improve food in schools. She has invited the private companies who make a goodly profit by feeding children this junk, to join it. As Oliver pointed out, these companies provide 40% of schools meals. Such a Trust should be independent of them, he said.


In very little time at all Oliver’s on-line petition ("I believe kids need a healthy diet so we need to change school dinners to ban the junk and get fresh, nutritious meals back on the plate. I support the Feed Me Better campaign.") has been signed by well over 2,000 people many of whom have included their comments. From these it is obvious that he has struck a rich chord. Many parents send their kids off with a packed lunch rather than let them eat the school schools meals offered.


One of the issues Oliver raises is the treatment of the ‘dinner ladies’, whose average wage is £82 a week. He wants investment made in the staff. He sees them as performing an important role.


Whilst some people might be sceptical about the motives of a multi-millionaire, the fact is that Oliver talks much sense, and the issues he is raising provide an opportunity, should they wish to take it, for the trades unions, particularly those whose members work in school meals to pick up this baton and run with it. Their members, better than anybody else, can tell the story of what has happened to school meals. From the 1980s, at least, school meals staff progressively had their hours cut, cooking was done elsewhere (the famous cook-chill method was introduced). The ‘independence’ of schools from Education Authorities meant that they were always under financial pressure.


Privatisation of school meals led to staff being treated like serfs, passed from local councils to private companies, and sometime onto other private companies. Of course, by now, the staff, in line with local education in general, are only paid during term time.


Financial pressures, mimicking what happened in the USA, led to sponsorship by private companies including the big food companies. The selling off of sports fields to companies in return for school buildings has lessened the chances of physical activity.


Of course, the transformation of school meals mimics what has happened in society outside school. In particular the bombarding of young people with advertising of the junk food variety has impacted on diets. At home many families do not sit round the table for a meal as they used to do.


There is plenty of evidence that E-additives and high levels of salt and sugar have created havoc not only with the health of children but with their behaviour as well. In the American Film, “Supersize Me”, we see the health of the presenter who lives on a diet of fast food for a month, deteriorate to such a degree that his life is under threat. In the same film we learn about schools in the US where they have gone over to local produce, freshly cooked. Not only was it a healthier option, but the behaviour of the children improved.


Oliver’s campaign provides an opportunity for the unions to popularise the return of school meals in-house, to support the junking of junk food, to support his call for investment in school meals staff (including higher wages), and to demand that the government increase the money available for local authorities for the provision of school meals.


This is not only an issue for the unions with school meals members. Education unions as a whole should pick up this campaign, come together and mobilise to push back the privatisation and commercialisation agenda of this government.


The issues raised by Jamie Oliver are fundamentally related to the impact of neo-liberalism on schools, of which school meals is only one aspect. One of the signers of Oliver’s petition, involved with schools in East Lothian, says:


“Like hospitals, food in schools should be seen as a service to benefit the recipient rather than profit making at the expense of the next generation.”


The big food companies, particularly those that produce the ubiquitous ready meals, have got away with murder, given the content of their products. The private caterers, who come out of the same school, so to speak, should be given the boot. To stop this poisoning of our children it is necessary to take the profit motive out of education and school meals in particular. The trades unions can show by taking up this complex of issues that they are concerned not only with the interests of their members but the health of a new generation. Moreover, we see here what ‘the market’ so beloved of the New Labour crowd, is responsible for.


You can visit the web site at:


Here is a cross-section of views sent in:


“Having been at an enlightened school prior to privatised dinner contracts it is imperative that we break free of the shackles of the big food processors who will not like this. To save a nation from diabetes and other ailments and ever more pressure on the future services of the NHS...... We have been warned!”


“I'm a qualified chef and have worked in some of the top hotels in London. I left London and had two kids, now they are going to school, the only 'catering' job I could find to fit in with my kid's was a school dinner lady. I am 100% behind what Jamie is doing and am so pleased that someone I went to college with is standing up for our voiceless children! I am ashamed of the food I serve up, salty, processed junk. I have offered to work unpaid overtime in order for me to make 'home made' food and offered suggestions of how recipes could be made more healthy; but no one is interested or cares. profit is their only concern. Up the revolution!”


“Children in townships in Jo'berg eat better than children in schools in the UK. It is outrageous that we are raising the first nation of children who will die before their parents since the Industrial revolution just because we're feeding them shite. If we can afford to bomb Iraq then we can afford to spend 50p per child on school dinners.”


“I used to be a dinner lady at a primary school in the 80s - the kids LOVED their meals - proper balanced meals and games lessons all go to help produce healthy kids!”


“Studying dietetics at Leeds met, I am well aware of the health risks linked to unbalanced diets. It is disgusting that more can't be done for children who help keep the chocolate, crisp, soft drink manufacturers in business. I say up the tax on the multinationals who have made massive fortunes with little conscience at the expense of children’s health. A developed society?....I don't think so.”


“Ten years ago I worked in a primary school. Some of us on the staff were very concerned about the food on offer at break and mealtimes. However we could not persuade the senior management to change anything. I am so pleased to sign up to this campaign and wish it well.”


“I work for the GMB union which has members in school meals. My mother used to work in school meals for years. Her hours were progressively cut as cooking on site became a thing of the past. The commercialisation of education started the rot, at least in the 1980's. In Swindon now, we have school meals staff treated like serfs, passed around from education authority, to private company, to private company. Decent food in schools and staff trained and on decent wages, are connected with junking this commercialisation process. Jamie was very polite about the government and Ruth Kelly on Radio 4's Food Programme. But he is right that the private companies who now provide 40% of school meals should not be involved in any Trust designed to improve school meals. They are only interested in a fast buck. That is why they provide rubbish food and treat the staff as a cheap labour force, so that their profits are driven up. Junking the junk food means junking the commercialisation of education. Congratulations to Jamie on challenging what is a national scandal; poisoning our kids at the altar of profit.”



February 2005


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