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LGC FINANCE - TIM STRETTON

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Jamie Oliver's school meals crusade gives food for thought...
Jamie Oliver's school meals crusade gives food for thought

They say that all publicity is good publicity - Norfolk turkey baron Bernard Matthews might not agree after the recent deconstruction of his Turkey Twizzlers by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Mr Oliver's high-profile Feed Me Better campaign to root out junk food in school meals turned its attention to the twizzlers - 34% turkey, 66% less appetising ingredients - with devastating effect.

No one watched Mr Oliver demonstrate what they consisted of on Jamie's School Dinners would have been keen to eat them or, more importantly, let their children eat them. As a direct result of the campaign, school meal supplier Scolarest has withdrawn Turkey Twizzlers from its menus. Bernard Matthews must be spitting feathers.

Mr Oliver's campaign also raises some important issues about the government's attitude to choice and diversity, as well as its relationship with education departments over school standards. In the run-up to the election, the opportunity has been too good to miss - education secretary Ruth Kelly wasted no time in announcing minimum nutritional standards for school meals. For a government frequently accused of control freakery, it is not a surprising response.

The contradiction comes because the government also supports - nominally at least - choice at a local level. What is rarely acknowledged by either major political party is that national standards and local choice are uneasy bedfellows. At a local level, some schools have chosen to close their kitchens, so the question of nutritious hot meals is moot. Ms Kelly has implied that she will fund schools to rebuild the very kitchens they have chosen to close. The tension between national standards and local choice is all too apparent.

The government is caught in a cleft stick: it simultaneously wants schools to have choice over how they spend their budgets - unfettered by 'interfering' education departments - and to spend them in line with government priorities. The issue goes much wider than school dinners or even education, but Mr Oliver's direct, media-friendly campaign has thrown it into sharp relief. Feed Me Better has touched a nerve with parents across the land.

Inherent in the idea of local choice that it leads to different outcomes in different places - the so-called 'postcode lottery'. Some school governors may be happy to spend only 37p per meal to be able to afford more books, while others will argue that classroom equipment is useless if the kids are hyperactive from artificial additives from lunch. The choice of where resources are best targeted is a legitimate one for individual schools to take but there are clear implications for national standards and targets. There is no easy answer but it would help if political parties of all persuasions at least acknowledged that it should be asked.

The central problem is that the government wants to have its Turkey Twizzlers and eat them - I doubt even Jamie Oliver can come up with a recipe to tackle that.

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