The latest survey of school meal provision by the SFT and the Local Authority Caterers’ Association reveals take-up in secondary schools edged up marginally in 2009/10 compared with 2008/9, increasing by 0.8%.
The figures have been seized upon by supporters of the SFT as evidence that tough new standards for school meals implemented in the wake of Jamie Oliver’s TV show had not, in fact, dented take-up.
They also prompted exchanges in the House of Lords in which Baroness Thornton accused health secretary Andrew Lansley of being “incorrect in saying that the take-up of school meals had gone down when it had gone up”.
According to the SFT's own figures, however, at just 35.8%, school meal take-up in secondary schools is nearly 10% lower now than it was in 2004/5 - when 44.9% of pupils ate school dinners - despite this year's rise.
Lies and damned statistics
But “fundamental differences in how the data is collected” now compared with the ‘pre-Jamie Oliver’ days meant it was unfair to compare this year’s results directly with results from 2004/2005, said the SFT.
It was not therefore possible to give a clear answer to the question as to what the ‘Jamie Oliver effect’ had actually been on school meals, admitted a spokeswoman.
“We know there was a significant drop in intake after Jamie’s School Dinners was aired, as a lot of parents saw what the children were eating on TV and said, 'I’m not letting my child eat that.' But what we do know is that take-up has been going up for the last three years, showing that children are coming back.”
The SFT was speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk in the wake of comments made by health secretary Andrew Lansley, who praised Jamie Oliver but criticised the previous government's response to his campaign: “Instead of working with families to engage them with the idea of building a good diet together, with food they enjoy, the bureaucracy took it over and they came up with a series of rules for what was permissible in school meals.”
Earl Howe, parliamentary under secretary of state in the Department of Health, also claimed that Oliver's initiative "turned into a kind of prescriptive, top-down management process from Whitehall, and that is counterproductive”.
His views were echoed by cardiovascular expert professor Tom Sanders, who told FoodManufacture.co.uk that initiatives to improve the nutritional quality of school meals “may have put more kids off eating them”.
However, SFT chief executive Judy Hargadon rejected his thesis, adding: “You quote Professor Sanders as saying there is little evidence the investment in the SFT has paid off. In fact the number of pupils eating healthy food at school has just seen the biggest year-on-year percentage point increase since the height of the school meals revolution in 2005.”
Compliance with the SFT's controversial nutrient-based standards for school meals was also high, she claimed, with more than 93% of primary and 71% of secondary schools in which school lunch provision is organised by local authorities believed to be compliant.
The SFT is an independent, non-departmental public body funded by the Department for Education. While it was named by the Tories last year in a long list of quangos under review it will continue to receive government funding.
However, its budget has been cut from £8.65m to £7.65m.