I was a pupil at Kidbrooke School — the main filming site for celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s game-changing TV series Jamie’s School Dinners — between 2001 and 2008. The show, which took Oliver from the status of national treasure to national campaigner, sought to cast nutrition in schools as an integral part of children’s education and well-being, highlighting the importance of free school meals, which for some children were their principal mode of accessing nutrition each day.
Now, in the face of the coronavirus crisis and discussions around what it means for children, schools, parents, and the economy, school meals are occupying a place in the public consciousness in a way not seen since Oliver led that crusade for healthy school meals in 2005. Following months of campaigning, with successes in the summer and setbacks in the October half term, celebrity-fronted school dinner campaigns are back on the national agenda. This time, though, attention has been explicitly on free school meals for pupils who are eligible for state-funded school lunches — due to household income or benefit status — forefronted by Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford. Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals has now successfully forced the second government u-turn this year, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirming over the weekend that his administration would commit to ensuring meals were available to children during the Christmas break. His intervention has gained significant public support and attention, and like Oliver’s programme, exemplifies the influence celebrities have to affect policy. But it shouldn’t fall to famous people to play such a role in policy decisions.
What the influence of both of their campaigns inadvertently obscures is the fact that it shouldn’t fall to famous people to play such a role in policy decisions. More, while both Oliver and Rashford appear noble in their motivations in taking up arms to address school meals, through circumstance or approach, I can’t help but feel that the legacy of Jamie’s School Dinners has more in common with opposition to a motion to extend free school meals than it does with Rashford’s recent successes and campaign to extend them. Celebrities’ ability to change public opinion and therefore government action is powerful, but that power doesn’t automatically get used for genuine good.
Having seen firsthand the pressure on children and their families to participate in the filming, and the show’s focus on the 37 pence cost-per-meal supplied in free school meals funding, it now seems even more obvious that the decision to film at Kidbrooke was based, at least in part, on the high proportion of pupils reliant on the free provision of food. Generously, I could see how that might have raised awareness of food poverty and contributed to the social mission of the show; cynically, the pupils at Kidbrooke felt like an easy target for a predetermined narrative. Moreover, the way this played out was problematic: Those children dependent on free school meals had no choice but to participate in the project — they were guinea pigs subjected to rounds of menu refinement designed to suit teenage appetites and palates. For any good that came out of the show, seeing it play out in real time also highlighted how exaggeration, individualism, and classism played into the final edit and influenced the national narrative around childhood nutrition and school dinners.
When I tell people that Kidbrooke was my school, they almost always ask about the “protests” and the “parents passing burgers through gates”, two of a handful of telegenic incidents in a school of over 1,000 pupils, most of whom ate their lunch in peace and rarely made for good viewing. However, that choice, and others like it (including Oliver describing a mother from Rotherham as a “fat scrubber” after she protested the nationwide roll-out of his menu), are exactly why the legacy of the show feels more in the spirit of class prejudice and misunderstanding of poverty exhibited by the 322 Tories who voted against feeding the country’s poorest children than it does with the momentum Marcus Rashford has created around organising and ensuring that kids don’t go hungry. People don’t ask about the food because that’s not what they remember; because its importance was necessarily relegated, it wasn’t really the star of the show. The choice to focus on a tiny portion of pupils and parents fighting for burgers fits a narrative, constructed by writers, producers, and Oliver himself — of Jamie as saviour for the thick, feckless working classes, who had no respect for nutrition and no understanding of budgets. This will always be a risk when government policies are influenced by celebrities, as such individuals lack the expertise expected of policy makers.
Wazzing up couscous for 18 pence is all well and good, but it makes for better telly to juxtapose it with shots of parents with accents shoving fast food through railings. Scenes of parents and students in rebellion were interjected throughout, bringing dramatic tension to the more practical discussions of value and nutrition. In another memorable piece of sneering superiority, friends of mine were pulled into a classroom and asked to identify vegetables — what the editors decided to air was a blooper reel of misidentified broccoli, edited together to make it look like the burger fiends had never seen fresh food, despite some of them being employed in supermarket produce sections. The reality was that there were students in the room who identified produce correctly, but in most cases, these examples were not included in the montage which aired.
Of course, there will always be showmanship for TV, but during the last 10 years of austerity — a decade of savage cuts to public spending across areas such as education, early years, and youth activities, including free school meals for primary school children — Jamie Oliver has returned time and time again, an uninvited expert on childhood food poverty and nutrition, campaigning on a paternalistic sugar tax, which addresses symptoms, not causes. Never are the factors of time, knowledge, or equipment, which prevent people living in poverty from accessing nutritious diets, fully or fairly addressed. For many people who’ve never known it themselves, Jamie Oliver — a celebrity chef, not a nutritionist or policy maker — offered an early introduction to the notion of food poverty and the value of free school meals. Oliver’s status as a TV personality brought the issue to the fore and has been a useful frame of reference in the years since his campaign launched — it fits the austerity agenda of individual responsibility without structural solutions.
This will always be a risk when celebrities become influential in policy discussions. It’s telling that the structural biases which underpinned the problems identified by Oliver in 2005 have not been overcome. Instead, politicians have been responsible for exacerbating the problem. In 2014, under former chancellor George Osborne’s austerity agenda, the Trussell Trust supported more than 1 million households for the first time. However, senior conservatives have continued to associate food poverty with individual choice and community action, with now-Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab once claiming that people use food banks due to “temporary cash flow” issues rather than poverty, squarely taking away responsibility from governments.
But, in These Unprecedented Times, such structures are under ever-increasing scrutiny – which is where Marcus Rashford comes in. Rashford has spoken passionately about the importance of free school meals in his own life — he understands poverty in a way that the people tweeting ‘bargain’ shopping lists of chicken legs, kilos of carrots, and frozen peas with no regard for fuel costs, time constraints, or the millions that live in food deserts will never understand. Food bank use has grown exponentially: In the last two weeks of March 2020, the Trussell Trust reported an 81 percent increase in the need for emergency food parcels compared to the same period last year; this includes a 122 percent increase in parcels given to children. In September, the trust warned demand at Christmas could result in the need for six food parcels to be issued every minute.
While both Oliver and Rashford appear to understand the importance of presenting their campaigns as apolitical, Rashford’s personal experiences seem to resonate more readily with the public. He has also been vocal in recognising the complexity of the issue and importance of the huge number of campaigners who have focused on this issue previously. While Oliver’s background and approach in the school dinners campaign gained traction with politicians — the chef famously sat with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street for a photo op — it was greeted with scepticism from some children and parents. Where the footballer stood up for what children needed at a time of crisis, the chef told children (and their parents) what they needed without fully understanding the complexities of their crisis. Oliver has continued to campaign on issues around school meals over the intervening years through the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, a charity focusing on food education and nutrition. The Foundation closed in 2019, though some of that work lives on; he will launch a new charity with the aim of halving obesity in the U.K. by 2030.
It was the public support for compassion and kindness seen during the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis that helped to create an opportunity for Marcus Rashford to emerge as a new champion for childhood food poverty. The successful campaign to extend free school meals over the summer felt like a turning point in public and parliamentary attitudes. Yet just months later, in the midst of a second wave, that same compassion was less forthcoming, and didn’t automatically translate into policy. The hundreds of mutual aid groups which formed during the crisis demonstrate a social and cultural desire to support one another, while offering the government an opportunity to praise communities without taking meaningful structural action of their own as these groups plug a shortfall created by policy decisions.
Consequently, shortly before entering a second lockdown, and with a second wave looming over the upcoming Christmas break, MPs had stated that there was no money available for the extension of free school meals, that other interventions were already addressing this need, and even that free meals could be exchanged for drugs. That they’ve been able to find the money retroactively says more about the misreading of the public mood and the strength of collective campaigning than it does about their newfound compassion.
Meanwhile, news stories focus on Marcus Rashford and his mum volunteering at food banks and on the kindness of local businesses feeding children during half term. This strips away the core message of the structural and systemic value that free school meals can add to children’s lives through stable, reliable access to nutrition — and the importance of those meals being distributed equally across the country. Additionally, the message has been co-opted by ministers, and emphasis has been placed once more on the role of individuals to volunteer and support food banks; not on the need for governments to redesign systems to address and prevent food poverty. For example, parents spending long hours at poorly paid jobs, and sometimes multiple jobs, face both poverty and a shortage of time to dedicate to cooking, and high housing costs can result in food becoming the only area of a household budget with any flexibility. Additionally, benefits sanctions and delays can all have serious short-term consequences, exacerbating the problems that social security should be alleviating.
At the time of writing, Rashford’s petition to extend free school meals into holidays exceeded 1 million signatures, and the U.K. government has now agreed to fund free school meals for the Christmas holidays. We know from Oliver that celebrities can force real change in this arena, and we know from Rashford just how much free schools matter to children who receive them. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need a footballer to lead a call to arms against child hunger, but this is the world we find ourselves in. Hopefully, the current support for Rashford might go some way in undoing the damage of Jamie’s School Dinners, successive governments, and austerity, and inspire a little more empathy and a little less demonisation. More than that, though, we need hope and we need action to bring about a system that isn’t broken, where children receive appropriate nutrition and nobody is left behind. And thankfully, Marcus Rashford — a man who sincerely knows the value of free school meals and is open about his personal connection to the matter — seems far better placed to lead that than Jamie Oliver ever was. His role in forcing the government to extend this provision over the upcoming Christmas break is testament to that understanding and sincerity.