Thursday, February 16, 2006


Britain's canteen ladies are on the point of rebellion and they are blaming celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, whose high-profile campaign to provide better school dinners has left them with a lot more work for no more money. Oliver's huge-rating series Jamie's School Dinners provoked a national debate last year with his Feed Me Better campaign. Amid a blaze of publicity, the television chef visited Prime Minister Tony Blair at Downing Street, where he delivered a petition with more than 270,000 signatures calling for more money to be spent on school lunches. Mr Blair announced that his Government would provide an extra pound stg. 280million ($663million) to lift the average expenditure on a school meal from 37pence in some areas to at least 60p across the board.

However, school canteen staff in London, Cheshire and Nottinghamshire say the money has been allocated to ingredients rather than wages, despite the extra hours staff are being required to work to improve the quality of school food. They are threatening mass walkouts if their wages and conditions are not improved. "Have you any idea how long it takes to peel fresh carrots for 700 children?" Transport and General Workers Union representative Cathy Stewart told The Observer newspaper. "Or cook meat pies to feed 300 or bake seven cakes? Our workload has soared. The dinner ladies are under tremendous pressure ... to deliver top-notch nosh but at rock-bottom pay."

Staff at 21 schools in Ms Stewart's Hackney region in east London will vote on whether to take industrial action to press for more pay. Canteen ladies in Newcastle, in the north of England, have already won a multi-million-pound pay claim. Canteen staff in some areas earn as little as pound stg. 9000 a year. "The Government says they are putting more money in but we are not seeing it in facilities or wages," Ms Stewart said. "All we want is fair pay. I would like to say to (Education Secretary) Ruth Kelly, come and spend a full day in a school kitchen in Hackney and see how hard this job really is."

Ms Kelly said more money had been provided to schools specifically for canteens and their staff. "We are investing pound stg. 220million specifically to help schools and local education authorities transform school meals through training and increased hours for cooks, equipment and a minimum spend on ingredients," she said.

Canteen staff are also angry at the public's impression that it needed Oliver to get them to lift their game. Ms Stewart said she and her members had been trying to improve the quality of ingredients long before the TV chef took up the cause. "We do not need Jamie Oliver to teach us how to cook," she said.


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