School meals are suddenly top of the political agenda, and about time too. For 25 years, the school meal was portrayed in film and literature as something to be endured rather than enjoyed, a character-forming rite of passage not to be taken too seriously.
Fortunately, the school meal is now at the forefront of debates about health and well-being. Who would have imagined that the public plate would become a litmus test of the public realm or a measure of our commitment to sustainable development? But this is precisely what seems to be happening in the wake of Jamie's School Dinners , a TV series that resonated with the public and induced a celebrity-obsessed Government to change its policy.
My colleagues and I have good reason to be grateful to chef Jamie Oliver. When we began our school meals research in 2002, as part of a project on re-localising the food chain, fellow academics were either amused or bemused. Even more bemused were the school dinner ladies, who were pleasantly surprised that anyone should be interested. But we believed that, with more creative public procurement, the school meals service could help to secure a triple dividend: nutritious school food could reduce diet-related diseases such as obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease; more locally produced school meals could create new local markets for farmers, affording a lifeline to crisis-hit rural areas; and a more localised food chain could yield environmental benefits through lower "food miles".
Long before Jamie Oliver arrived on the scene, dinner ladies such as Jeanette Orrey were already achieving minor miracles. However, these pioneering dinner ladies have tended to focus on primary school children because, in their view, teenagers and students are already a "lost generation" as regards healthy eating. But neither secondary schools nor universities should be allowed to abdicate their responsibility to provide more nutritious food. Secondary school pupils will eventually benefit from the new school meals policy package announced by Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, leaving university students and further education students as the most neglected members of the lost generation.
Universities have a duty of care to their students, which ought to include the provision of healthy food. Sadly, universities devote little or no time to thinking about its nutritional impact or their role in the local food economy. A perfect illustration of this neglect is the Higher Education Funding Council for England's new consultation document, Sustainable Development in Higher Education , which contains not a single mention of food and drink, even though UK universities collectively spent £58 million on these items last year. To deploy such a large budget with so little consideration of its wider impact seems perverse. The University of Wales recently felt obliged to rethink its procurement policy because the Prince of Wales (its chancellor) asked some rather searching questions about the provenance of the food and drink served in its canteens. Universities should be doing a lot more to create a healthy eating environment because, perhaps sooner than they think, some awkward questions could be coming their way from the likes of the Sustainable Development Commission.
By promoting a healthy eating environment, where locally produced nutritious food is routinely available, the higher education sector will be weaving sustainable development concepts into the warp and weft of everyday life. Then it will be able to justly claim to be practising what it preaches.
Kevin Morgan is the principal investigator of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded research project titled Delivering Sustainability: The Creative Procurement of School Meals in Italy and the UK.