Jamie Oliver’s school dinners improve academic performance

He has been ridiculed by the chat
show host David Letterman, accused of high-handedness by a local radio DJ and
reduced to tears by recalcitrant fast food-consumers during his war on American
obesity. He has even dressed up as a giant pea pod in an attempt to turn the US
on to his healthy eating agenda.

So Jamie Oliver will doubtless be
relieved to hear of a timely reminder of his more gilded reputation back home.
Recently, an audience of prestigious economists was told that the healthier
school dinners introduced by the celebrity chef had not only significantly
improved pupils’ test results, but also cut the number of days they were off
sick. The effects, researchers said, were comparable in magnitude to those seen
after the introduction of the literacy hour in the ‘90s.

The proportion of 11-year-olds in
Greenwich, south London, who did well in English and science rose after Oliver
swept ‘turkey twizzlers’ and chicken dinosaurs off canteen menus in favour of
creamy coconut fish and Mexican bean wraps, according to a study of results in
the south east London borough.

The number of ‘authorised absences’
— which are generally due to illness – fell by 15 per cent in the wake of his
2004 Feed Me Better campaign, brought into the nation’s sitting rooms via the
British TV series Jamie’s School Dinners.

Benefit did not extend to poor pupils

But the annual conference of the
Royal Economic Society also heard that the poorest pupils – those who are
eligible for free school meals – did not seem to benefit. Instead it was mainly
children from more middle class homes who saw their scores boosted after
Oliver’s junk food ban was implemented.

The researchers estimated that the
proportion of students who got level 4 in their English Sats at key stage 2
increased by 4.5 percentage points after his intervention.

The percentage that got level 5 in
science was up 6 percentage points, they reported.

Mr. Oliver described the research
results as “fantastic”.

“It’s the first time a proper study
has been done into the positive effects of the campaign and it strongly
suggests we were right all along,” he said.

“Even while doing the programme, we
could see the benefits to children’s health and teachers. We could see that
asthmatic kids weren’t having to use the school inhalers so often, for example.

“We could see that it made them
calmer and therefore able to learn.”

Importance of home-cooked meals

The chef said it was further
evidence that faster movement was needed towards improving take-up of
nutritious, home-cooked school meals across the country, by training dinner
ladies, getting kitchens and dining halls up to scratch and educating children
and parents.

The presentation of the findings
comes at a convenient time for Oliver, whose US version of the Greenwich
project, currently being shown on the ABC network, has seen locals in America’s
unhealthiest city, Huntington, West Virginia, give him short shrift.

“We don’t want to sit around and
eat lettuce all day,” radio DJ Rod Willis snapped at Oliver during the first
episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. “You come to town and you say you’re
going to change our menus. I just don’t think you should come here and tell us
what to do.”

Last week the Essex-born chef
appeared on the Late Show, and was forced to listen to host David Letterman
predict he would fail in his crusade to transform people’s health. Letterman
insisted diet pills were the only way to lose weight in the US.

‘Particularly impressive’ effects

Oxford University’s Nuffield
College and Jonathan James from the University of Essex, monitored results and
absences in five neighbouring local authorities – chosen for their
socio-economic similarities to Greenwich— as a control. They looked at figures
from 2002 to 2007 – skipping the school year 2004/5, when the new menus were
introduced.

The effects seen, they said, were
particularly impressive given that they emerged within a relatively short
period of time, and that the campaign was not even directly targeted at improving
educational outcomes.

“As indicated by the relative fall
in absenteeism, it is likely that children’s health improved as well, which
could have long-lasting consequences for the children involved not only through
improvement in educational achievements, but also in terms of their life
expectancy, quality of life and productive capacity on the labour market,” the
study said.

A survey by the Association of
Teachers and Lecturers presented at its conference in Manchester today found
that almost seven in 10 union members thought all primary school pupils should
be given free school meals.

The same number wanted controls in
place to limit the sale of chocolate, sweets, crisps and deep fried foods.

A third said the dining room at
their school was unsuitable, and 56% said they had seen pupil behaviour
deteriorate after eating food with a high fat or sugar content.

Mr. James said the research team
was now looking at why children from poorer homes seem to miss out on the
benefits of the changes brought in by Oliver.

“This is a source of concern, in
particular in light of using school meals as a way of reducing disparities in
diet across children,” the report said.

It suggested the difference might
be because those from richer backgrounds adjusted more easily to changes in
school meals, or because the less privileged students were more represented
among those getting lowest scores, and improvements were harder to achieve for
those at the bottom than in the middle.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the
tide in the US may be turning in Oliver’s favour just as it did in Greenwich,
where initial hostility from dinner ladies eventually turned to adoration. More
than 100,000 people have signed an online petition supporting his campaign for
better school food. After he appeared with Oprah Winfrey on Friday, 7.5 million
people tuned in to watch his show.

Jamie Oliver

Healthy school lunches lead to better productivity, scores.
Photo: File
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