“My wish is to create a strong sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity.” – Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver is right to be concerned about the health of our children. A recent report by King’s College London showed that one in three children in the UK are now overweight, while one in five are obese. Most striking is the statistic that 37% of 11 to 15-year-olds are now classed as overweight or obese. Without action, this sorry state of affairs will have profound implications on these individuals and their quality of life, but also for the government. A recent report by McKinsey suggested that the current £6bn to £8bn in obesity-related costs to the NHS could increase to between £10bn and £12bn in 2030. The economic argument is clear.
So what is the context here? In 2012 Jamie Oliver campaigned to ensure that national nutritional standards for school food applied to academies as well as maintained schools. Michael Gove rejected this, explaining that school leaders should be free to act in a way they felt best met the needs of their pupils and should not be ordered about by government diktat. If I’m honest, I must admit that I initially felt that this was one of the oversights of the Gove-revolution. Whilst it is true that some academies have risen to the challenge and provide nutritious, varied and affordable meals for their pupils, others have not. However I have since realised that, whilst Mr Oliver’s intentions were well-intentioned, his policy suggestion was too blunt a tool and would not have had the desired impact. What use are universal school food regulations when children can simply opt out of school lunches? Suppose instead, we make it compulsory for children to eat in school – but what is to stop the children eating a bit of lettuce before charging round the corner to demolish a chip butty at the local greasy spoon? Perhaps, therefore, we can lock the school gates and keep students in schools all day so they have no option to eat school food – but what about the sugary cereals at breakfast (or none at all) and double-helping of chips at dinner?
And this is why Jamie Oliver’s latest campaign to support “compulsory practical food education”, in all schools across G20 nations, is much more desirable. A powerful ‘food revolution’ requires pupils to be nurtured from the earliest years. Effective education is about laying down clear routines and cultivating positive habits. Many primary schools do this incredibly well already and model schools need identifying and their best-practice sharing with others. If we can teach children from a young age about how food is grown, processed and consumed, they will then be able to make a much more informed choice about what they eat as they grow-up. We can’t force people to be healthy; but we can open their eyes to the benefits of a wholesome, nutritious diet and the clear, negative consequences of unhealthy eating.
A sustainable ‘food revolution’ could go further than this. It requires an embedded school culture in every school centred on healthy eating. This can only come from schools with strong leaders and staff buy-in. Converse to what Jamie Oliver campaigned on in 2012, school freedom can actually lead to better standards of nutrition than the old, one-size fits all model of state education. It allows for innovative thinking and the opportunity for schools to negotiate with suppliers and meal providers, rather than accept the status quo favoured by local authorities. Take the Michaela Community School in Wembley, for example. Every day it provides a ‘family lunch’ where teachers and students eat wholesome meals together and where pupils are given clear responsibilities with regards to serving and clearing up. This lunch is part of a clear, whole-school ethos which values school lunch as the means to healthier living, as well as to develop ‘soft-skills’ like table manners and polite conversation.
Importantly, an effective ‘food revolution’ requires parental support. This might be achievable in more affluent neighbourhoods where parents can afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables more readily, and (may) have more time to attend school-run cooking classes. However it will be much more difficult in deprived communities where parents are working hard on long shifts on low-pay, and come home exhausted and without the financial means, and perhaps cooking skills, to drastically improve the quality of food they are serving their children. It’s perhaps unsurprising that there is a clear correlation between deprivation and obesity, with 30% of women and 25% of men who are classified as the most deprived in society being obese. These numbers drop to 19% and 22% obesity rates for the least deprived. And herein lays the moral argument for revolutionizing children’s diets through an increase in wages for those parents at the bottom end of the wage spectrum. Indeed, the Government’s plan to help the lowest-paid through raising the starting rate of income tax should free up the vital few pounds a week required to purchase higher quality food. A planned rise in the National Minimum Wage cannot come soon enough.
It also requires education and training for parents to learn how to cook quick, cheap and healthy meals for their children. Parents should be given free cooking lessons in schools, possibly alongside their children, to develop their knowledge and skills. Employers could be required to give employee parents time off to do this. Those parents with overweight children who don’t take action to attend classes or improve meal provision at home should expect social services to be involved. Stick is needed along with plenty of carrot; I have seen the damaging effect on children’s learning when they buy a large ‘value’ bar of cheap chocolate to eat on the way to school as they have not been fed breakfast at home. The havoc this can cause to that child’s life deserves tough action on parents who neglect their children’s wellbeing.
A final solution requires a look beyond the school gates. Even with the most supportive schools and well-equipped parents in the world, children will sometimes make the wrong choices. I have witnessed the numbing reality of children being left to their own devices, spending their daily £2 lunch money on a 2 litre bottle of Coca-Cola and a packet of chocolate biscuits. I have experienced the perils of having to teach a class of 30 year 8 pupils, many of whom have just downed a bottle of highly caffeinated energy drink at break time. The Government should review current regulations on the sale of energy drinks to children and needs to work with retailers in close vicinity to schools to ensure that a seemingly harmless packet of sweets after school does not turn into a habit of unhealthy eating. The involvement of teachers or parent volunteers to assist here could be an option.
Jamie Oliver is a great chef. He is also a good man and I believe that he has the best interests of British children at heart as he launched his ‘Food Revolution Day’. People of all political stripes should sign his petition and support him in his aim for “compulsory practical food education” in all schools. Alongside this, greater school freedom, tackling low-pay and fostering greater social responsibility amongst shopkeepers will provide the food revolution that Britain needs.
For more information: http://www.foodrevolutionday.com/