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Top British chef Jamie Oliver has reiterated his anger at budget cuts made by the coalition government to school dinners as part of its spending review.
Speaking at a press conference for international journalists covering the cultural side of London during the Olympics, Oliver told Square Meal editor Ben McCormack: ‘The government has relaxed the rules around the food served in academies, which in my mind is unforgiveable,’ adding, ‘I know we’re in a recession, but this was a cash-neutral decision.'
The campaigning chef, whose 2005 programme Jamie’s School Dinners brought the food served in state schools to national attention, was speaking at the London Media Centre HQ in Parliament Square in front of more than 100 journalists from all over the world.
His comments were made in relation to the government’s decision to cut the £80m funding previously secured for school meals, as well as its refusal to ensure that academies operate according to the nutritional standards Oliver helped put in place, including the banning of the sale of junk food on school premises. Academies are directly funded by the Department for Education and are independent of the rules that apply to schools run by local government.
As part of his campaign, Oliver worked hard to force a review of school meals by the then Labour government, which led to Tony Blair committing £280m to improving school dinners, and approving a ban on the sale of junk food – including the infamous Turkey Twizzlers. The chef is still involved in the school-dinners campaign at policy level, but has been angered by the coalition government’s U-turn on the issue.
‘The one thing I’ve learned is that when it comes to making things better for children, people in Britain – be they parents, dinner ladies or teachers – really want to learn, they really want help, and they want the tools to make better choices,’ said the chef. 'I think people in power should lead by example and support them.'
Oliver went on to describe his school-dinners campaign as the proudest achievement of his career.
‘When I started the school-dinners project, there were more regulations around producing dog food for supermarkets than there were around developing and cooking school dinners for children,’ he said. ‘It was one of those things where the British had got their priorities spectacularly wrong.
‘Children are at school for half of their childhood, so school is a wonderful opportunity for food education that's being missed at the moment. My dream would be that every 16-year-old child would leave school knowing how to cook, knowing how to budget and knowing how to look after themselves and their family. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask.’
Despite his popularity, success and passion for the cause, Oliver did come under fire during the peak of his school-dinners campaign, which has made him cautious about being known as a campaigner.
‘Campaigning really isn’t glamorous, and people in Britain don’t like campaigners,’ he told McCormack. ‘If you have an opinion, people don’t like you – I have plenty of opinions. And if you’re passionate about something, people don’t like you either. So in truth I would rather be known as a chef than a campaigner.’