Jamie Oliver’s lesson in big government

The level of critique by self-righteous foodies on TV has reached new heights recently with Jamie’s American Food Revolution. The programme makes for astonishing viewing – school children are fed pizza for breakfast, and trays of food for lunch that are so packed many adults would struggle to finish them. And all this is accompanied by bottles of neon-coloured flavoured milk. Jamie is understandably moved by the plight of these children and the health stats he reels off while trying to reform a local school canteen are not hard to believe. What is hard to believe, however, is the naivety of one of Britain’s most well-known chefs.

Jamie for years now has worked hard to try and centralise the UK school food agenda, arguing the government should get more involved in making decisions and setting standards for what children eat at school. Famously he took his campaign to Downing Street and was given an audience with Tony Blair.

In episode 1 of his new series, he gets to make a lunch option to compete with the processed junk on offer and discovers that unlike the option he competes with, his does not conform to the state’s nutritional guidelines. Wide-eyed Jamie seems amazed at the level of paperwork and intrusive standards these school cooks have to conform to. Two bread servings a day per child is the main standard that trips him up – ironically it is the pizza that allows the school to meet this absurd guideline. In the rest of the series he is now trying to work out a menu that jumps all the hurdles created by a set of nutritional guidelines that seem bizarre.

Introduce centralised requirements and they will inevitably be stagnant, onerous and counterproductive. Capturing imaginations, changing menus and introducing systems where power is devolved to individual schools may require harder work in the short term, but in the long term it would pay off. The lesson Jamie needs to take from his latest foray into school food is that big government is not good government as long as it is my government, but rather that if he’s serious about getting kids to eat healthier food he should campaign for less government involvement in what schools do, not more.

When I was a school governor, I was told (and I assume that this is correct) that the school could not even provide a minor subsidy for its canteen out of its (otherwise delegated) general budget. Schools, in other words, have to sell what makes a profit. There is nothing wrong with that, in general, except that these are children. A school (and its parents, governors etc) cannot take the decision to sell healthier food (which may not make a profit) and subsidise the canteen. Yet another example of perfectly voluntary paternalism being undermined by the state.

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