(June 19) A year ago, some children in the United Kingdom feasted on french fries and molded meat slurry products called “turkey twizzlers” for a typical school lunch.

That was before celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his crusade to transform school nutrition.

The fallout from his four-part series, “Jamie’s School Dinners,” which aired in February and March 2005 on British Broadcasting Corp. Channel 4, and his Feed Me Better campaign transformed the way school lunches are served in the country according to news reports.

The Feed Me Better campaign launched concurrently with the “Jamie’s School Dinners” series at www.feedmebetter.com. According to the site, the goal is to “provide real school food” for school children.

A three-month drive to gather 10,000 signatures for the campaign to deliver to Prime Minister Tony Blair brought in more than 271,000. The Web site has tracked Oliver’s progress in the campaign to improve school nutrition.

In the year and a half following the series’ airing, the U.K. government:

  • banned junk food, defined as food with little nutritional value, from school cafeterias and vending machines;


  • pledged more than $530 million to improve school meal programs by renovating kitchens and hiring and training staff;


  • increased per-meal expenditures on ingredients by more than 20%;


  • introduced new nutrition standards — the first mandatory standards since it abolished them in 1989 — which require a minimum of two portions of fruit and vegetables with each meal; and


  • restricted servings of fried items to a maximum of two servings a week.



The “Jamie Oliver Effect” was even named the No. 1 factor leading to an increase in the consumption of fruits and vegetables in the past year, according to a U.K. produce industry survey released in May.

According to the survey, conducted by Grant Thornton UK LLP, nine out of 10 respondents predicted a growth rate of about 8.5% in the next 12 months.

The phenomenon also has been blamed for the decline in profits and closure of school lunch catering companies, and a decline in the number of school children opting to eat in-school meals, according to reports from the BBC news.

BRITISH INVASION

Oliver could be taking on U.S. school nutrition next.

He toured schools in New York in the fall, researching the possibility of doing a similar show in the U.S.

The Learning Channel aired the four-part series as “Jamie’s School Lunch Project” in May and plans to rerun it this fall, said Oliver’s spokeswoman, Kim Yorio of New York-based YC Media.

Though the U.S. has mandatory nutritional standards in place for its school lunch program, improving the nutrition of the nation’s youth and increasing fresh produce consumption is an ongoing effort.

Groups like the Alexandria, Va.-based School Nutrition Association and the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity — which boasts members including the Produce for Better Health Foundation and the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association — have been lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve nutrition in schools.

U.S. STANDARDS

The National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in January outlining specific improvements that it believes need to be made in order to bring school nutrition standards up to the government’s dietary guidelines released in 2005. The new guidelines call for one to two additional servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Elizabeth Pivonka, president of Wilmington, Del.-based PBH, said the process of changing school lunches can be slow. She said it could take two to three years for the new dietary guidelines to be implemented in school cafeterias.

Getting more fruits and vegetables into school lunches is difficult because it costs more money, Pivonka said. To get programs through the legislature, they often have to be cost-neutral, which means to add more fruits and vegetables, some other area like dairy, meat or grains would have to be cut.

“Unless there’s a lot more money put to it, they may not be able to make as many changes as they’d like,” Pivonka said.

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for Washington, D.C.-based United, said it is important for industry groups to maintain a presence when it comes to public policy.

“The USDA knows that it needs to bring school meals into compliance with dietary guidelines,” DiSogra said. “How fast they act and what it looks like is going to be up to all of us because we need to keep encouraging them.”

An Oliver-type presence could certainly help speed things up, she said.

“If we had somebody like that, I think it would really help us energize efforts in the U.S. to transform school lunches,” DiSogra said. “Sometimes you need to bring national attention to it to get things to change.”

The Naked Chef changes British school lunch policy
In 2005, Chef Jamie Oliver launched his crusade to transform school nutrition in the United Kingdom. (Courtesy YC Media/David Loftus)