Orange Alert

With apologies to The Filter^ who are currently trying to claim the noble colour orange as their own, I have a somewhat less positive feeling towards this particular hue. In my second year at University I shared a house with a lad whose choice of evening meal was, err, limited. It was basically a variation on- Fish Fingers or Breaded Chicken Burger / frozen oven-baked potato product (waffles, pancake, scallops) / baked beans or sweetcorn (Green Giant “Mexicorn” for that occasional exotic treat). Every day he sat down to a big plate of grim orange-tinted fare and I felt quite ill. I can’t say my diet was much healthier (I haven’t eaten Campbell’s Meatballs since graduation; I can’t even look at a tin), but it did at least have some sort of variety in colour.

I have been reminded of this while watching the series Jamie’s School Dinners on Channel 4, where Jamie Oliver has ditched his irritating chirpy Sainsbury’s mockney image to tackle the problem of school meals (yes, I know every other blogger under the sun has already covered this subject, but I am a bit slow. Sorry). The first day Jamie turned up at a school canteen he was greeted by a vast range of frozen, processed food arranged before him, and it was almost all a hideous orange in colour; from the bright yellow-orange of the chicken nuggets to the dull brown-orange of the burgers, and not a actual zesty, juicy orange in sight. Special mention must go to the burgers which were of that economy variety that fall apart when heated; meat that has been sandblasted off the bones of long dead carcasses, mixed with rusk and all held together with old chip fat.

Whilst I sympathised with Jamie’s cause – and agree that school dinners seem to have gone down hill even since my day – I couldn’t help but recall that my diet at that age was far from healthy, yet I was as fit a flea; I am far less healthy now even though I try to eat all the right things. Unlike Jamie, I wasn’t surprised that teenagers didn’t recognise asparagus; I probably wouldn’t either at that age. At school it was not unknown for me to just eat a plate of chips and gravy and spend the rest of my dinner money on cola bottles and toffee logs from the ice cream van. In summer I sometimes spent my entire dinner money on my own type of orange food; cider lollies.

Despite my reservations, there certainly were some genuine revelations during the series; while it is not surprising to be told that eating crap food can lead to diabetes and heart disease, it was incredible to see one family state that once they went on Jamie’s diet the whole house calmed down; on the one occasion they subsequently ate additive ridden junk food the kids suddenly became more boisterous and aggressive and started climbing up the walls. Similarly, it was interesting to hear from the teachers at one school who said that after converting to Jamie’s diet the pupils’ attention level and academic performance in the afternoons had improved, and from a school nurse who said there was no longer a queue of children needing to use the asthma inhaler after lunch.

Jamie certainly found it difficult providing a two-course meal for just 37 pence, and no wonder; it is all a far cry from his own restaurant where he thinks of a meal, finds out the cost of ingredients, and adds 65% on top to find the price. He was also hampered by ridiculous rules drawn up by well meaning but short sighted bureaucrats who said you couldn’t add salt to any foods; so those minging turkey twizzler things that look like broken pre-war rubber bands and are pumped full of fat, salt, sugar and preservatives are okay, but adding salt to potatoes to make mash is a no-no.

Of course what is bad for children is bad for adults, and this prompts some people to say we should have a tax on unhealthy and fatty foods. There are two justifications I suppose, the first being that we tax cigarettes and alcohol, so why not unhealthy food? This ignores that fact that people need to eat food, and some people need to eat cheap food; I feel uncomfortable raising tax on what is an essential. The second, perhaps more understandable, suggestion is that it could be considered that there is an element of market failure in play here; that food companies sell us shit food but don’t pick up the tab for the resulting illnesses and diseases, which is borne by the public sector. While I understand this argument, again I have to disagree. For one thing, the companies that sell unhealthy foods are the same ones that sell healthy option meals, and give us all a choice in what we buy; for another, the food industry already pays a large amount of tax (I don’t know the figures relevant to this discussion, but when it was suggested that pubs pay for the expected increased policing required to deal with the forthcoming relaxation in the licensing laws, it was pointed out that the licensing trade already hands over enough tax to pay for the UK’s police forces many times over). In any event, we can go round in circles with this debate; if people do eat unhealthily and have to go to hospital as a result then they have already paid for their treatment through their own taxes; and if they do shuffle gravewards early then we are spared paying their pensions. It could be argued that with an ageing society the food companies are actually doing us a favour; perhaps they need a tax rebate!

So I feel uneasy about taxing food, I think that essentially adults should be able to eat what they want at their own risk; but what about children? Presumably they don’t have total freedom to eat whatever they want at home, so why should they have that freedom at school? The state may not be able to tell adults what they can and cannot eat, but surely it has control over what it provides in its own schools?

Jamie soon realised the self-evident truth that if you give children the option of healthy food or shite food, they will go for the shite. Many adults would do the same. Much criticism was levelled at the private providers of school meals such as Scholarest for the food they were serving up, but you cannot expect anything different; their job is to make a profit, not to feed children healthily. The days when my mother worked in a school canteen and was told they had to provide over 50% of the recommended daily intake of proteins and vitamins have long gone. Unless minimum standards are issued and a menu devoid of junk food is introduced then children will inevitably continue to be offered rubbish, and they will choose it. If we want children to eat healthily at school then it can be done tomorrow; if we don’t care then we can carry on just as we do now.

As things stand, however, everyone seems to be a winner. The Government say they are reviewing school meals just in time for the election, Jamie Oliver has made people reconsider their opinions of him (there is even talk of a knighthood) and thanks to their exposure on Jamie’s School Dinners sales of Bernard Matthew’s Turkey Twizzlers have risen by 32%. Amazing. Personally I’d rather relapse and have a tin of Campbell’s Meatballs than eat those shrivelled lengths of MSG (although only just); at least meatballs don’t look like they glow in the dark.