Appetite for Change
School Meals Policy in the Limelight 2005
Published In: Power Moves: Exploring Power and Influence In the UK (London : Carnegie UK Trust, 2008), Chapter 2, p. 20-43
This case study examines the Government's decision in 2005 to establish new nutritional standards for school meals. This case is well known for the part played by Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef, but there were many others involved too. This study aims to identify some of those involved, consider the tools, resources and mechanisms through which they accessed the policy process, and where possible reflect on their impact. The case study finds that: --School meals play a central role in children's nutrition In a survey carried out by the Local Authority Caterers Association in 1999, 22 per cent of parents said that they rely on school meals to ensure a balanced diet for their children and 60 per cent said that school meals played a vital role in their children's diet. The centrality of school meals in children's nutrition has helped make school food the subject of campaigning and research for many years. Since full deregulation of provision and standards in 1988, a number of groups have been campaigning to raise awareness of the link between children's health and school food. --Campaigning and research had been building up for years Campaigning and research by organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group, the Caroline Walker Trust, the Health Education Trust and the Soil Association amongst others helped to build both the case for intervention in the quality of school food and a body of knowledge about how it might be done. Work from within government and other organisations reinforced awareness of the relationship between school meals and health and strengthened the case for intervention. --Jamie Oliver's 2005 TV show and campaign built on and amplified existing calls for change The advice of campaigners, academics, experts and practitioners in the field of school meals informed the television programme, Jamie's School Dinners, and the Feed Me Better campaign. Oliver's profile and celebrity, together with sound research and a well-designed campaign, popularised and amplified the demands of existing campaigners. --The policy changes themselves were broadly welcomed by most stakeholders The School Meals Review Panel was created to prescribe changes to school meals. It consisted of representatives from a range of groups with an interest in the delivery of school food (including campaign organisations, the catering industry and schools). There was almost unanimous agreement on the panel on the introduction of nutritional standards and the banning or restriction of certain types of food from the school canteen. The School Food Trust was set up to help schools implement the standards. However, there were complaints from some, particularly those with knowledge of the delivery side of school meals, that perhaps the process was too quick, creating challenges for implementation. --Traditional media appear to have been a lever for influencing opinion and the policy agenda Over five million viewers tuned into Jamie's School Dinners. This television programme highlighted issues that had been promoted by school meals campaigners for many years. The programme succeeded at presenting some of the problems with school meals in a way that was engaging and accessible to members of the public. However, access to public platforms such as the mainstream media requires the ability to draw on a range of resources, tools and levers. Jamie Oliver's fame, knowledge (of food in particular), and track record in popular television meant that he was able to use the media in a way many other campaigners could or would not. For professional campaign organisations such as the Soil Association, having the resources to develop campaign-oriented media-friendly materials, backed up by sound research, was key to accessing press and media coverage. --The media allowed the wider public to engage with the debate on school meals policy The media, and in particular the internet, was one of the few spaces in which members of the general public were able to engage in the debate about school food. Members of the public were able to participate in the 12 week consultation the government opened in advance of the adoption of the School Meals Review Panel's recommended guidelines for school meals. People were also able to post their comments on the Channel 4 website message boards, and participate in the forum on Jamie Oliver's own site. In February and March 2005 (when the programme was broadcast) Oliver's website generated five million hits. Oliver also encouraged people to sign an online petition for presentation to the Prime Minister, for which over 270,000 names were gathered. --Different campaigners and groups have different skills for influencing policy One example of the different impact of these campaigning organisations includes the work of the Caroline Walker Trust using its nutritional expertise to develop a set of scientifically-based nutritional standards, providing the basis for the standards eventually adopted in 2005 following a twelve week consultation period on the proposals. The Soil Association also used its campaigning and lobbying techniques (backed up by robust research) to publicise the need for change to school meals provision. --Timing and credibility may be important factors in success at influencing policy: It appears that timing may have been an important factor in the success of Jamie Oliver's campaign. By 2005 evidence of rising levels of obesity and ill health in the population provoked concern amongst experts and policy-makers, as well as increased public awareness of health problems caused by a nutritionally poor diet. The growing concern was in part the result of high profile research, such as the 2004 House of Commons Health Committee report. At the same time, there was an understanding developing of the link between poor diet and eating habits picked up during childhood. Campaigners and experts had already been developing a set of possible solutions to address the issue, some of which had been successfully implemented, notably in Scotland. This meant that by the time Jamie's School Dinners appeared, the time was ripe for change, built on and supported by credible research, and with a focus on suggested solutions. --Effective implementation may benefit from stakeholder engagement Evidence from research conducted by OFSTED and the Local Authority Caterers Association suggests that, following the introduction of the new standards, uptake of school meals fell by up to 25 per cent in some schools, although this decline was not uniform. In those schools that experienced decline in uptake, arguably this was at least in part due to the negative portrayal of school meals in Jamie Oliver's programme that some may have mistakenly taken as representative of all school meals, even those that were not of poor quality. In schools in which there was not such a decline it appears that one of the keys to sustaining take-up may have been prioritisation by Head Teachers and senior managers to successfully engage parents and children through the implementation of the changing policy. Department for Children, Schools and Families and The School Food Trust have a range of initiatives aimed at engaging local authorities, head teachers, parents and pupils in delivery.