Magazine article Public Finance

Feeding Frenzy

Magazine article Public Finance

Feeding Frenzy

Article excerpt

Who could have predicted it? A loud-mouthed young celebrity chef with the face of a battered angel takes on an ailing school meals service. By the time the last programme in his series is broadcast, the prime minister has stepped forward to promise the electorate that he will act to improve food in schools.

That's the power of celebrity for you. For the past few weeks, Jamie's School Dinners' has made compelling viewing for adults and children alike. For parents and educators it has simply confirmed the link between good nutrition and attentive, contented pupils. For children, it has provided an important lesson on the perilous limits of junk food. And for foodies everywhere it has provided that most unlikely of sensations, the impulse to drool over delicious-looking school dinners.

But the programme has also triggered public interest in the pay and conditions of public service workers. It simply doesn't make sense to talk about consumers without talking about producers.

Providing nutritious school meals is not just about re-introducing basic nutritional standards (abolished by Margaret Thatcher's government in 1980 along with the mandatory requirement to provide a midday meal for the nation's children). Nor is it only about getting Ofsted in to check on the quality of school meals, welcome as these moves might be.

A good service also vitally depends on the work of those who are expected to cook and prepare the food - the workers in the school kitchens. Jamie Oliver clearly grasped the politics behind the compelling theatre he himself helped to create.

Dinner ladies like Nora and Elaine, struggling to implement his fresh food revolution in ill-equipped kitchens better geared to re-heating turkey twizzlers and shovelling out chicken nuggets, were in many ways the true stars of the celebrity chef's programme. Harsh conditions of work and chronically low pay were quickly pinpointed as one of the major obstacles to genuine improvement of the services.

It is a lesson with much wider implications. Last week, the NHS faced a 'black hole in its budget' according to one national newspaper, after Unison, the public service union, won a record equal pay award on behalf of 1,500 women working in North Cumbria Acute NHS Trust. The women are to be awarded between £35,000 and £200,000 each after an employment tribunal found that they had suffered pay discrimination since 1991.

Over the past 15 years, equal pay for work of equal value has been one of the main, if largely unheralded, strategies used by the trade unions to improve the pay of women workers. …

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