Mounting criticism of state school meals has stung the Government into action this week as it set out a series of pledges in a document called Children - Forward Not Back. Amid growing public clamour for healthier school menus, Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to boost spending on kitchen facilities, improve training for dinner ladies and subject school food to Ofsted inspections.
In the run-up to a likely May General Election, the prime minister also promised to build on the "remarkable work" done by Jamie Oliver in his recent TV series. But he stopped short of committing any money to the plan. Opposition politicians are cynical about the timing. Tim Collins, Tory shadow education secretary, said: "What we need are genuine solutions, not more pre-election gimmicks."
The Liberal Democrats believe the Government is jumping on the school meals bandwagon. Phil Willis, the party's education spokesman, said: "We've been pressing Margaret Hodge [children's minister] for five years to do something, and she's failed. Blair has only spoken out now because he has absolutely no answer to the situation."
Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, believes Blair's statement adds no meat to the proposals unveiled by Education Secretary Ruth Kelly in February. "We're still waiting for the details. The prime minister mentioned ‘substantial funding' - we just hope Ruth Kelly will come up with it."
Contract caterers have also shrugged their shoulders at the news. Neil Porter, chairman of the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA), said: "The Government hasn't said if money will be ring-fenced to improve school food - it's hiding behind vagueness and longer-term strategy."
A Scolarest spokeswoman added: "We await a more detailed announcement on additional funding [and] hope the Government will take on board comments from all sectors of the industry." LACA, the Soil Association and Scolarest plan to form a five-way lobby with contract caterers Sodexho and Initial after Easter. They aim to keep up pressure on the Government before the General Election. The group also plans to enlist the support of Oliver.
The celebrity chef had gathered nearly 200,000 signatures for his Feed Me Better petition as Caterer went to press, which he plans to deliver to Downing Street next week. He said on his website: "If changes are made, it will only be a matter of months before British health, education and farming could be affected for the better."
A source close to Oliver's campaign said the petition is only the beginning. "We're very keen to do a TV follow-up to Jamie's School Dinners and keep up the pressure. We're currently in negotiations to see what would be the most useful course for the campaign to take, but we want to act quickly and do something in the next few months."
Source: Caterer & Hotelkeeper magazine, 23 March 2005