Jamie Oliver, the famous young British chef, has conducted a campaign against the poor quality of canteen food and has received assurances of rapid improvements from Prime Minister Tony Blair.
It’s not only Italian TV that is swarming with chefs, their every gesture filmed while they breathlessly explain a plethora of diverse recipes to the viewing public. It is a widespread phenomenon and not a bad thing. It is another way of encouraging families to pay a little more attention to food. But with a bit of effort it would be possible to do much more than present and film a basic recipe.
Of all the chefs permeating the airwaves in the UK, there is one in particular who has had the courage to go beyond TV appearances and grab people’s attention. Jamie Oliver leapt to fame with the TV series The Naked Chef. He is 27 years old, with a mature outlook you would not expect to find in a young celebrity of the small screen. He subsequently revealed an uncommon sense of social responsibility in pulling out his wallet to create the Fifteen Foundation, a project that aims to give underprivileged young people from London an opportunity to learn the secrets of cooking and the chance to make a career in catering.
The day he discovered that the British government spent the miserable sum of 37 pence per student for a school meal, Jamie realized it was a crazy situation and something had to be done. Through his website he launched ‘Feed me better’, a campaign to banish junk food from schoolchildren’s plates and replace it with food that was fresh, tasty and nutritious. In just six weeks he had collected 271,677 signatures. It was a considerable number if we think how British people are not generally very aware of food quality, whether at home or at restaurants. Precooked food is very popular, with a preponderance of strange products using vegetables and meat sourced from poor-quality agriculture. It is anything but natural and doesn’t offer much in the way of sensory satisfaction.
With press photos immortalizing Jamie Oliver outside 10 Downing Street with boxfuls of signatures, Tony Blair felt obliged to announce that funds for school food would be doubled. We should applaud the success of this commendable initiative to promote food awareness. In a civilized world it is quite unacceptable that the food on school menus should be chosen on the sole basis of lowest cost, educating young palates to all kinds of rubbish.
The situation in Italy is less serious than in other countries, but our more marked preference for genuine food needs nurturing and strengthening. Legislation was even passed a few years ago, though too frequently ignored, which provides incentives for those in charge of school canteens to purchase locally produced food, preferably organic. Legislation to introduce local food to canteens is a good thing but is not enough on its own. If we don’t want a return to deplorable criteria of convenience, we need awareness. So any legislative action needs to be accompanied by real taste education.
Lack of information is not the problem either. There is often too much, often conflicting advice. Young people need to be encouraged to find out where the food they find on their plate every day comes from. Knowing about the relationship between their food and the local region is fundamental to understanding the differences between food. They can learn to distinguish what is good and natural from what isn’t just by holding different products to feel the texture, examining them with a critical eye and noticing the different aromas. I’m not so sure that there aren’t some children who think fruit and vegetables actually grow in supermarkets — which is why it is so important to set up a garden in every school.
First printed in La Stampa on April 4 2005
Adapted by Ronnie Richards