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Jamie Oliver’s Food “Campaigning” Will hit Working Class Kids Hardest – yet Again

Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of eating disorders.

Ahh, Jamie Oliver. The Naked Chef. The school meals guy. The anti-Jack Monroe. Turning up at Downing Street with what is actually a pretty rubbish pun of “Eton Mess” because of a Boris U-Turn on legislation that would force supermarkets to not do 2 for 1 deals on junk food items. During a cost of living crisis.

You may remember Oliver from such spectacular cultural moments as that time he showed kids what was in chicken nuggets and then looked despondent when they said they’d all still eat them, and for his crusade against turkey twizzlers. Jamie first had an impact on my life way back in the mid-00s with his school dinners campaign, when 12-year-old me rocked up to find there would only be chips on one day each week.

Okay, 12-year-old Caroline probably needed to eat a bit healthier. She was eating chips every day for lunch, having gone vegetarian the previous year and finding her choices were very limited. But she was also a growing girl, and also one trying to figure out her own relationship with food beyond “that stuff mum cooks”. 

It was a formative time for many of us, and a focus on school dinners could have had so much positive impact on the rest of our lives. Imagine if we’d been taught about intuitive eating and only eating until you’re full. 

There was something else Jamie’s school dinners campaign missed the mark on – where were the pledges of making sure food was generally affordable and kids wouldn’t be having a maximum of one meal a day if their parents were cash strapped? 

Well, that didn’t happen. What did happen is that I was always too late to the dining hall to get one of the about 5 jacket potatoes the kitchen seemed to think were sufficient for 800 students, and was left with the “choice” of over-cooked, oil covered pasta with sauce that probably passed for tomato by virtue of sugar and food colouring (it certainly didn’t taste of tomatoes) or maybe just some peas on their own. 

The result? Certainly not an almost teenager getting any healthier. No, it was more like me still eating chips one day a week, and not eating anything for dinner the rest of the week. My school meals entitlement went unfulfilled, and – as someone who has never been fond of breakfast – I didn’t eat anything from getting up until I went home unless I could find 20p for some toast at first break. 

I took the 40 minutes they gave us for lunch and went literally anywhere else. Plus the resulting low blood sugar, lightheadedness, and a lasting effect on my eating habits for the rest of my life.

I turn 30 next month, and do I have a good relationship with food? Do I always make good choices and eat intuitively? F*ck no. 

The constant across my remaining school days and the decade and a half since has been that when I get stressed or depressed, I just stop eating. I’m not sure I’ve ever been motivated by the urge to be thin – I was thin up until I started university and now I rock my fat body.

Not eating can be as bad for your health as eating too much, or eating the “wrong” things. I’ve certainly found that my disordered eating has had way more effect on my health than being fat ever has. And given the current cost of living crisis, Oliver’s particular method of specifically targeting something that makes feeding your children more affordable is particularly insidious. 

If you’re a working-class family with little money, 2 for 1 “junk” microwave meals might be the only way you can feed your kids. Not to mention that microwave meals cost a lot less energy than cooking something on the stove

If you don’t have the time or ability to slave over the cooker to make something from scratch then the “20p a portion” meals that Tory politicians all now claim they eat are outside of your grasp as well. 

If I was 12 years old right now, knowing how little money my family has, knowing if I ate less then my brother would get to eat more, being faced with not just no “unhealthy” option but a family struggling to put the “healthy” option on the table as well, would I have a healthier relationship with food when I reached 30, or do you think maybe it would be worse? I stopped eating when there was another (frankly terrible, but still existing) option, what are today’s 12-year-olds going to do?

I realised as an adult that my parents were able to make sacrifices for us so that I never went without an evening meal, so at least I was getting one meal a day. I was one of the lucky ones. And yet I still have a problem with food. 

Now Jamie has moved beyond school dinners and is choosing to go after what the working class largely relies on in his war against “obesity” – though don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with BMI, we don’t have enough time..

And yes, I guess, there is likely to be less “obesity”, not that you can’t be fat and have an eating disorder. And maybe, just maybe, supermarkets will replace their 2 for 1 offers on chocolate and sweets with ones for bread and fruit – although then there’d probably be a problem with the high carb content!

But is that worth the cost of kids not eating, instead of developing disordered eating patterns and suffering mentally? Are we starving kids now in the hopes that the big guns will pull their fingers out and make their food more affordable, instead of working to make the actually positive thing happen? 

Oliver has already screwed over one generation of kids, we can’t allow him to do it again.

Jamie, your “campaigning” is the real mess here. It’s too late for me, I’ve had nearly 2 decades of your bullsh*t. Stop trading one food problem for another and calling it progress.

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