Why did the health minister mug Jamie?

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You have to wonder what the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, thought he was doing when he attacked Jamie Oliver school dinner campaign last week. Shot himself in the foot, I'd say. His remarks that "people did not want to be lectured" about healthier eating, that Jamie's efforts to reform school meals have flopped, and that he, Mr Lansley, was going to introduce "an evidence based approach", all show a talent for putting his own foot in his mouth by opposing the first, most promising steps to improve our kids' diets and the quality of their future lives.

jamieoliver-school meals-small.jpgMr Lansley will have done his own career no good, as he seems to have contradicted what his own, wiser boss said about Oliver in a Party Conference speech: "We need to understand that cultural change is worth any number of government initiatives," said David Cameron. "Who has done more to improve school food, Jamie Oliver, or the Department of Education? Put another way, we need more of Supernanny, less of the nanny state." Whomever Mr Lansley thought he was aiming his buckshot at, most of it really does seem to have peppered his own pedal extremity.

Let's look at Mr Lansley's claims. First: the lecture. Lansley wants to change the name of his department to the Department of Public Health. How much will it cost us to insert the single word "Public"? I'll wager it's at least enough to give every schoolchild a portion of fresh fruit or veg for a week or two.

Lecturing? Hectoring, more likely: the Health Dept. spends a king's ransom on advertising campaigns, and supports wretchedly expensive quangos such as the Health Protection Agency (£155.9 million budget) and Healthcare Commission (£61.4 million). Is Mr Lansley really prepared to argue that either of these nanny-statist bodies has had a hundredth of the influence of Jamie on schoolkids, their parents or the professionals responsible for school meals?

And Jamie's cost to the exchequer? Very little by comparison to the profligate mess of a department Mr Lansley has inherited from his predecessors. So why doesn't he just get on with cutting the fat from his own inessential projects (as we've been promised/threatened by the government) and stop taking potshots at Jamie?

We'll take his second and third claims together - that Jamie's efforts have failed, which his "evidence based approach" will presumably demonstrate.

However, Mr Lansley, what are the questions for which you require evidence: Who ought to take the responsibility for dealing with the juvenile obesity epidemic? For the fact that so many children are not only dependent on fast food and junk food diets, but don't even know how to eat with a fork? For the fact that the least-advantaged children have the poorest diet?

The School Food Trust established in 2005, formerly chaired by Prue Leith, to monitor school catering has, thanks to the Chancellor George Osborne, just suffered a £1 million cut - leaving it with only £7.5 million in 2011. Yet this seems to be one of the few bodies able to supply the evidence Mr Lansley has requested.

And on 30 June their CEO said: "Following Jamie's School Dinners and the introduction of new standards in 2006 take-up has gone up over the last two years - reversing a 30-year decline." (Their website includes a graph with the figures, http://www.schoolfoodtrust.org.uk/news-events/news/school-food-trust-comment-on-the-impact-of-jamie-olivers-school-dinners.)

Yes, indeed, we need an evidence-based approach. Yes, people need to take responsibility for their own health - but only up to a point, as the anti-smoking campaign shows. How is Mr Lansley going to take his (governmental) share of the responsibility for improving the diet of young people if he slags off the efforts of somebody who's really trying to do something about it? As Mr Cameron has said, what we need is a change in our food culture. Isn't that precisely what we chefs, including Jamie, try to achieve in our work every day, and what I have done for a long time?

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To be fair to Andrew Lansley, he did clarify his remarks about Jamie Oliver in a recent speech to the Faculty of Public Health conference.That is why, contrary to the media reporting, I applauded Jamie Oliver’s initiative on school dinners and when he went to Rotherham – because Jamie ‘got it’.He got that it’s not just about a witch hunt against saturated fats, salt and sugars. It’s about creating a better understanding of, and relationship with, good food and diet. And even more, it’s about self-confidence – it’s about building self-esteem.
When you watch the programmes – and I did watch them - they were about building self-esteem, not just about what went into the food and how you cook it.The problem was the government’s response. Instead of working with families to engage them with the idea of building a good diet together, with food they enjoy, the bureaucracy took it over and they came up with a series of rules for what was permissible in school meals.The fact is, you can’t legislate for self-esteem from Westminster. We can’t pass the Elimination of Obesity Act 2010. Turning Jamie’s campaign into a list of how often you can offer chips – whilst not rationing roast potatoes cooked in oil – doesn’t do the job.In complex policy areas like this it has become clear that government cannot simply ‘deliver’ key policy outcomes to a disengaged and passive public. We cannot solve complex problems on our own – everyone has a role to play.However, Lansley has somewhat undercut such sentiments by acceding to pressure that govt. support for Change4Life should be withdrawn and funding provided by Food and Drink industry in exchange for no regulation of junk food.

Apologies for unreadability of above comment - I did preview it and the HTML displayed it correctly, I don't know what happened to the quote format or the line breaks.

The new figures showing an increase in the proportion of school children eating school dinners are a vindication of the the Jamie campaign and the nutritional standards brought in by the School Food Trust. Andrew Lansley's comments to the BMA last week were ill informed and inaccurate. Whilst the upturn in figures may seem modest it is worth noting that in schools that made an effort the upturn was much more dramatic. Schools taking in part in the "Food for Life Partnership" programme saw a 16% increase in school meal uptake.

Whilst I agree with Evidence Matters that we need to make it easier for families to enjoy good food I disagree with his assertion we don't need rules for school meals. My experience is that in 2005 before school food "rules" my kids were able to buy mars bars and cokes at school. Now they can't. Before 2005 caterers could serve fried foods daily without any fruit and veg. Now they can't. I am not a nutritionist but I would prefer the content of our school meals to be determined by health professionals rather than the profit motives of the caterer.

I've always been lucky enough to be in a household where food is prepared from basic ingredients. First by my mother, then myself. I was quite shocked by Jamie's School Dinners. How can children not even recognise basic vegetables?

I believe the government could do a lot worse than give Jamie £50 Million with the goal of improving the nation's health. He'd do a lot better than the bureaucrats that are currently mismanaging that role.

I feel as if this whole debate and all the fuss is simply an issue of pride on the government's part. Jamie Oliver, a no name in the world of politics until recently, couldn't possibly know what's best for these programs because he doesn't have "such and such" government training with "so and so" degree. But why should that matter if he has the best plan? School lunches have gotten out of control, and I say this because the in the school that I work efforts to create better choices fall flat on their face, because of things as silly as the people employed in the school kitchen can't cook! This whole movement is going to be all about how much effort everyone wants to put in, which is why I enjoy it so much; it cannot possibly succeed unless it has majority support from every level, from the kids up to the very top big whigs. True democracy at work, how much do you care about your health?


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