Big Interview: The fight for school food

Big Interview: The fight for school food

The Big Interview: Prue Leith, patron of Let’s Get Cooking

The Conservatives under David Cameron were planning to extend not scrap free school meals, Prue Leith tells Jane Renton.

Prue Leith may be in her late 70s but seems to be on something of a roll. At a time in life when most of us might be expected to be drawing our pensions or worse have become invisible, the down-to-earth restaurateur and cookery writer turned novelist, appears to be having it all, something she once declared in an interview was impossible. Last year she remarried after many years of widowhood and having met her new husband she seems brilliantly happy. And as if that weren’t enough on its own, she has recently embarked on TV mega stardom as the new co-judge of the hit series, The Great British Bakeoff.

Like much in the redoubtable Prue’s life, her latest foray into public life has not been without controversy: for a start, her new TV role has involved her replacing national treasure Mary Berry, an old friend, who declined to follow Paul Hollywood over to Channel 4 after it outbid the BBC to the rights to the series. In some sense it places Prue in the invidious role of Chris Evans when he replaced Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear. It has also given rise to a very British prurient fascination with the saucier details of her earlier somewhat adventurous love life by the tabloids, something that once reportedly prompted her embarrassed son, Danny, to buy his mother a megaphone, with a note stating, ‘If there’s anyone in this country who doesn’t know about your love life, perhaps this will help.’

When we meet, Bakeoff is strictly off the menu. But her new role and her impending TV fame or even notoriety, however, provides her with an undeniably perfect platform from which to crusade on another matter that remains close to her heart – school food, which has her fired up once more.

She left the Children’s Food Trust (CFT), then the School Food Trust, an organisation that she chaired eight years ago, but has returned to the territory once more. To much less fanfare she renewed her connection with the organisation in May by becoming patron of the charity’s Let’s Get Cooking programme, which the CFT established in 2007 with Big Lottery funding to provide cooking clubs for children and their parents. Like many such enterprises, such clubs are struggling for support in the current economic climate and so too is the very issue of school food provision, with continued uncertainty over the fate of UIFSM.

Despite Prue’s obvious Tory connections – her column in the Spectator and a son who was once a speechwriter for David Cameron – she is disenchanted with the recent turn of events. The decision by Theresa May to put the scrapping of Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) centre stage in the Conservative Manifesto, along with a whole host of other equally unpopular measures, has alienated many, including Prue. It risks undoing 12 years of hard slog.

“What Theresa May has done has made me cross,” she says. “We all struggled for 12 years to improve school food and it was getting better and better.”

Surprisingly, she tells me that the Conservatives, far from being the party of Thatcher the milk snatcher, were in fact on the verge of introducing free meals to all primary school children in state-funded English schools up until Cameron’s untimely departure after the UK referendum last summer.

This is something of a thunderbolt, as many people involved in this industry, including myself, were of the firm opinion that the Tories and the Department for Education were itching to get rid of the existing UIFSM, something that costs the government more than £600m a year to run, let alone extend it.

But Prue is adamant. “Cameron was on the verge of announcing free school dinners when he left [government]. After running it for 18 months they had seen the results – they said, ‘this is terrific we had better extend it’,” she says.

Not only does she deplore what May has done over UIFSM, something that at the time of this interview was widely expected to be scrapped but now appears to have been reprieved. After all, May’s minority government has bigger concerns to deal with and moreover does not necessarily have the support to reverse what is a highly popular policy, especially with parents.

May’s intention had been to offer breakfast to all primary school pupils, the cost of which seemed to be wildly underestimated at a cost of £60m. If indeed every pupil opted for it, it would mean an allotment of just 7p per pupil per breakfast.

“[May’s advisers] would never have done it had they realised how much they were going to brown off all the Hammersmith yummy mummies. I certainly feel they will try and undo it,” she says.

While Prue appears to be in favour of schools providing breakfast and applauds campaigners such as Carmel McConnell of Magic Breakfast for her “terrific work”, but says that breakfasts must not be allowed to eclipse the school lunch.

“Lunch involves a longer period of time and allows children better opportunities to eat their vegetables. The opportunity to teach children about healthy eating is far greater,” she says.

Her philosophy regarding school meals is a simple one: the government should provide free school meals for all primary school children, but ensure that meals – as in countries such as Sweden – forms a core part of the curriculum. If you are teaching children about Italy, for example, you also have ‘a lesson’ whereby you reinforce those teachings by having Italian dishes on the school menu that week. If such meals are free and part of the curriculum – a lesson in their own right – everyone, children and parents included will accept them.

“If children come to school hungry there is not much chance of learning anything,” she says. “To be brutally honest I would cut virtually any other programme in school in order to feed children. I am a great music lover, I adore the arts – my mother was an actress – and while all these things, along with sports, are incredibly important none of them will work on an empty belly.”

But as she herself says, “running through the Tory DNA like a stick of rock”, is the assumption that responsibility for children ultimately lies with parents, not the state.

“But it is the collective responsibility of all of us because we’re all going to end up paying for the obesity epidemic,” she argues.

Prue’s own advice to government, to parents to anyone involved in school food, is to prohibit packed lunches from school.

“No child should be bringing in lunch boxes to school or any other food for that matter,” she says.

That would mean that by lunchtime most children would be hungry and would generally tend to eat most of what was put in front of them, which is why menu choice should be strictly limited and based upon produce that is strictly good for young developing minds and bodies, she believes. In that sense, greater consumer choice, which is now mainstream in most schools whether state or private, has been more of a hindrance than a help, she argues.

“There must always be an option in a sense that there’s bread, there’s fruit and there’s yoghurt, but kids are conservative, if they like pizza they will eat pizza every day for ever, so it doesn’t matter whether you put a fantastic array of healthy food in front of them, they will just go for the pizza,” she says.

You have to educate children to like and want vegetables. “There is not a mother in any British council estate that doesn’t know that vegetables – the five-a-day – are good for you,
but she’s not going to waste her benefit money buying vegetables that her child doesn’t like and won’t eat.”

In other words, she believes, there is a clear imperative for schools and governments to teach children about making healthy choices, not necessarily parents, who she says are sometimes simply too ignorant or exhausted by work to really do that on their own. Giving children free school meals represents, she says “a tiny amount of money” in the grand scheme of things, and certainly pales into relative insignificance if you compare it to the money the NHS is already spending and will spend in future on the ill-effects of obesity and poor diet on people’s health. The trouble is, politicians never seem to address this, because as she says, they remain in power for five years then generally move on.

No-one relishes a nanny state, but if Prue were in charge then the nanny state might not seem so tyrannical.