Jamie Oliver is right to take the new government to task over free school meals - Jayne Dowle

I’m supporting Jamie Oliver every step of the way as takes the new government to task over free school meals.

This is no flash in the frying pan opportunist headline-grabbing exercise. The father of five has long been committed to the cause of promoting healthy food for children. I can remember him years ago rocking up to Rotherham and taking parents to task for feeding their offspring burgers through the school gates. I seem to recall writing something scathing about Southerners being patronising.

At times, Mr Oliver’s evangelism over healthy eating has veered dangerously into a kind of cultural imperialism; for many parents who have never learned to cook, the idea of throwing a load of pulses and beans in a pan and mixing them up with herbs and spices for tea is as alien a concept as booking dinner at the Ritz.

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Now though, such are the times we’re living in, he’s not bothering with the niceties. He’s just interested in food, any food, as long as it's warm, nutritious and given to children, who may be relying on this as their only meal of the day.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. PIC: PA Photo/Matt Alexander.Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. PIC: PA Photo/Matt Alexander.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. PIC: PA Photo/Matt Alexander.

With his determination to make the government see the sense in extending free school meals - he’s backing the Feed the Future campaign for free lunchtime food to be extended to around 800,000 more children who are “the most vulnerable in society” – Mr Oliver is bang right.

Who could, morally, argue against feeding children? Successive Conservative governments, it seems, which have seized on ‘free school meals’ as a matter on which to dig in heels and wave aloft as proof - of what? Their commitment to so-called ‘levelling up’? I don’t think so.

Whilst some of their number support tax cuts for the highest-earners, they’re turning their back on millions of kids who have no control whatsover over what their parents earn, or don’t.

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There’s a moral repugnance to this that makes me think of Victorian attitudes to ‘the deserving poor’ that have absolutely no place in the UK in 2022. Other countries must be turning up their noses at us (again); Sweden and Finland, for example, give every school-child a free meal at lunchtime, no questions asked.

Even when the cause has been put forward by indivuals as charismatic as Mr Oliver, and top footballer Marcus Rashford, who received an MBE from the late Queen Elizabeth in her 2020 Birthday Honours for his work highlighting the plight of vulnerable children, it has taken dogged persistance to get Tory politicians to see sense. Or as Mr Oliver told BBC Radio 4’s Today progamme this week, the former prime minister Boris Johnson had to “nearly die and have a child” before he saw his point of view.

In England, all infant state school pupils up to Year Two can receive free school meals during term time. However, as it stands, when children enter Year Three, these free school meals stop unless certain household financial conditions apply. Only those whose parents are on UC and have an annual income of no more than £7,400 after tax, or who are on another benefit such as Jobseeker’s Allowance, are eligible.

As the former pot-boy in his dad’s Essex pub goes head to head with Therese Coffey, the new Secretary of State for Health and deputy Prime Minister, if the matter of keeping children fed and healthy wasn’t so serious it would actually be laughable.

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In a round of media interviews this week, Miss Coffey kept insisting that the reason why she is so against extending the provision of free school meals this autumn - even as the cost of living crisis is literally doubling the price of food before our eyes - is because she fears that the ‘wealthy’ on incomes of between £35,000 and £40,000, but also eligble for top-up Universal Credit financial support, might cash in too.

Does this woman, who presumably avails herself of cheap lunches (bowl of soup, 88p, in 2021) in one of the House of Commons’ 17 bars and restaurants, subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £17m over the last three years, according to research by the Open Democracy global media platform, have no idea of how people are really having to live? Every penny is being counted, even in homes where parents earn more than average.

Mr Oliver’s Ministry of Food venture, which teaches people how to cook healthy and affordable meals, closed in Leeds in May of this year. The city council decided to divert funding to smoking cessation sessions instead.

Everyone has to make tough decisions right now. I’d like to think that those with the power to make a tangible difference to society will be making them with the best intentions at heart.