Simmering discontent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2006, 12:00am

Many of us look back with rose-tinted glasses at the school days of being clipped round the ear by the table prefect if you failed to polish off your overcooked cabbage with lumpy mashed potato, hard carrots and stringy bits of lamb. It was a bit of a trial, but no matter how much we hated it, we always seemed to finish off the semolina pudding tempered with a drop of rosehip syrup.

School dinners have moved on since then - though not always for the better. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has exposed the cheap, reheated, nutrition-lacking rot served in school canteens - junk meals topped with oven chips or instant mashed potato. But Oliver showed us how to cook healthier, tastier food at the same price. What a bargain.

His TV series, Jamie's School Dinners, hit if not a raw nerve, then at least a dangerously undercooked one, and sparked a revolution. The result? Demoralised, low-paid kitchen staff would get more money to buy fresh food and turn it into tasty, healthy meals, giving pupils a nutritious start in life. What's more, they'd feel happier and more satisfied in their work.

Well, that was the idea. The reality is a tad different. No one told the cafeteria workers that, in most cases, they would have to work much harder, longer, and for no extra pay or resources.

School food in London may no longer be revolting, but those who cook it are: starting with the dinner ladies at Rushmore Primary School in east London's borough of Hackney, who are downing spoons and ladles in search of better pay.

So far, Oliver's school canteen revolution has been fuelled on goodwill, with staff tapping into a national mood that's keen to cook good food for children. But goodwill, the staff have warned, can only simmer for so long. Discontent is now boiling over. On Wednesday, cafeteria workers from 57 primary and secondary schools in Hackney will protest outside the town hall. A week later, if no extra pay is forthcoming, they plan a one-day strike. Such action is not limited to London. Walkouts in Cheshire and Nottingham are on the cards, too.

It may seem selfish to deprive children of good food because of an increased workload. But some staff earn just GBP9,000 ($122,400) a year, and have drawn much union and local support with their distinctly unrevolutionary, although highly resonant, war cry: 'You try peeling carrots for 700 kids!' If they want to further inflame parental anger, they should follow Marie Antoinette's lead, and pen placards declaring: 'Let them eat cake.'

Which is just what their smiling students will do on Wednesday, when deprived of their tasty, healthy, organic cabbage-and-lentil bakes. Perhaps they should try semolina?