I HAVE to say that Jamie Oliver’s recent attack on Michael Gove over non-mandatory nutritional standards in academies made me a bit cross.
You may think thats a strange reaction from the head of a school catering company.
Well, let me say first that my annoyance isnt because I disagree with Jamie on the main issue. I absolutely dont. Not only do I think the governments nutritional guidelines should be universally adopted, I also think they should be much better policed across the board.
The difficulty I have is that nowhere, in any of Jamies invective against the education secretary, has there been any recognition or acknowledgement of the huge strides that some school caterers have made in the years since Jamies School Dinners appeared on TV in 2005.
Indeed, from the tone of Jamies remarks, the general public could be forgiven for thinking that nothing has been done to improve the standard of eating in schools. All school caterers have apparently been tarred with the same brush. And when you work as hard as we do, that can be a bit deflating.
There seems to be this implication that if you put school dinners into the hands of private caterers, the drive for profits will take over and corners will be cut wherever possible in order to keep costs down. Sure, that may well be the case for some, but its certainly not the case for all. It really does depend on your priorities and the business model you put in place.
When I started my company, Cucina, seven years ago I was genuinely inspired by Jamie Oliver. In my previous job Id had to oversee 220 school kitchens and Id seen at first hand the kind of rubbish food that kids were often served up.
So when we started our company we were determined to prove that with the right business model it is possible to put nutrition at the very top of the agenda and turn school food around. And, by being prepared to absorb some costs and realistic about our profits, thats precisely what weve achieved.
Cucina is now a successful, profitable company. Im not exaggerating when I say that in all our client schools weve doubled, tripled and quadrupled uptake of school meals. Yet we still manage to cook all food from scratch. We make our own bread, our own sauces and many of our own condiments. Each of our school restaurants has its own trained chef and each offers a vast range of healthy, yummy food daily. We give our young customers food they recognise, but we make sure its top quality too. We call it stealthy eating.
I accept that not all catering companies share these priorities. Broader implementation and stricter policing of the guidelines would do much to eradicate the convenience food mentality of caterers too used to buying in packs of premade goo, snipping off the top, pouring it over pasta and calling it a sauce.
But look at the other end of the spectrum. Our company and others like us are showing how things can be improved and thats the message I want to get out there. Not just to blow our own companys trumpet though thats always nice but to show what can be achieved. Getting young people to enjoy eating well is the first step to developing a genuine love of good food.
Wouldnt it help things along enormously if companies like ours were looked upon as beacons and used as resources by Mr Oliver and Mr Gove? I certainly think so.