School meals champions including Jamie Oliver and the Local Authority Caterers Association (LACA) have lined up to attack a speech given by the health secretary in which he said that efforts to improve school food had failed.
Andrew Lansley told the British Medical Association conference in Brighton that people needed to take responsibility for their own health and that the Government was likely to opt out of legislating on health and diet because "constantly lecturing people" will be "counterproductive."
He said that Oliver's campaign had not had the desired effect and that school meal take-up had fallen.
"Jamie Oliver, quite rightly, was talking about trying to improve the diet of children in schools and improving school meals, but the net effect was the number of children eating school meals in many of these places didn't go up, it went down."
While demand for school food suffered a drop after the chef's School Dinners Channel 4 programme, figures from the School Food Trust show it has gone up slightly for the past two years, running to 39.3% of primary pupils and 35.1% of secondary children.
Oliver described the comments as an insult to the hard work of dinner ladies, teachers and parents while LACA chair Beverley Baker said that Lansley had "missed the point".
"I'm not encouraged by the news that the new health minister has summed up eight years of hard work in a few lines for the sake of a headline," said Oliver. "Any problems that we've been having in school meals is more often than not down to continuing lack of funds for training of school catering staff."
Professor Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, suggested the health secretary's comments about the TV chef's campaign were unfair.
"I find it deeply distressing. I think what Jamie Oliver did was excellent. The whole thing managed to improve school meals and pushed the government into investing more money into them."
Baker said that since school food regulations were introduced five years ago caterers, together with schools, have worked hard to transform school meals and encourage healthier eating.
"Whilst we must all take charge of our own health to some degree, the school meals service needs funding to continue beyond the end of the School Lunch Grant next year and we need it to be ring-fenced so that standards can not only be maintained but prices remain affordable for parents," she added.
LACA, in association with Caterer and Hotelkeeper launched the School Meals Matter campaign to call on the government-elect to commit to continued support of the school meals service. For more details and to sign the petition, visit www.caterersearch.com/SMM.