This year, the issue of nutrition in school meals was dragged, screaming and kicking, onto the national agenda. When Channel 4's screening of Jamie's School Dinners ended, the Essex charmer took a petition signed by 271,677 people to Downing Street. The same day, Tony Blair announced an extra £280m for school meals.
On the back of the series, Oliver was interviewed in magazines, on Parkinson, and on Radio 4. The cause sparked a national debate in the media and living rooms across the land about the quality of food fed to kids. Jamie's School Dinners received two gongs at the National Television Awards. Calls followed for Oliver to receive a knighthood.
The campaign was a phenomenal success for many reasons. The press offices of Channel 4 and The Outside Organisation played their part, working with Greenwich Borough Council to arrange a high-profile launch event in Leicester Square, and setting up media interviews.
Oliver was already accepted as an agent for change, having trained unemployed youngsters to work in his restaurant, Fifteen. The Jamie's Kitchen TV show highlighted the work of his charity, The Fifteen Foundation. And with a passionate, persuasive star at its helm, the show never became boring or worthy.
Groups such as Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, have been campaigning to improve school meals since the 1980s. Its co-ordinator Jeanette Longfield says society had started to listen even before Oliver's programme. 'We used to say: "If children don't start eating healthily they risk obesity in the future." Now it's visible – we can see the obesity around us,' she explains. After the 2004 Public Health White Paper, several schools had taken it upon themselves to make changes.
Oliver was a catalyst, with perfect timing – just before a general election. As The Whitehouse Consultancy MD Chris Whitehouse says: 'There was a shift in political thinking – Jamie Oliver seized the moment.'
Behind the scenes, Oliver employed Fiona Gateley – previously comms manager at Duchy Originals – to run the 'Feed me Better' campaign. She collected the signatures he took to the PM, and produced packs for teachers and dinner ladies. Working with the Channel 4 public affairs team, Gateley lobbied the DfES and Number 10, and set up a debate with interested parties, including Sustain, the Health Education Trust, catering suppliers and DfES representatives, in March 2005.
With public opinion so strong, no organisation has dared speak against the campaign, although some treat its success with caution. Longfield points out that it is difficult to get to the bottom of exactly how much extra funding has been promised: 'The most recent DfES figures said £220m over three years. But there is confusion about where this will come from – is it all new money or does it include what's already being spent?'
Indeed, it is difficult to pin down the precise results so far. All schools within Greenwich that receive school meals have the new service and the scheme is being rolled out to include Meals on Wheels for the elderly in 2006. But UK-wide the picture is far from clear.
This is partly because information is still coming in (see box).
However, critics are already expressing concerns about the Government's response. Times health editor Nigel Hawkes says: 'There is often a flurry of initiatives that get quietly forgotten – like with MRSA. It's a demanding administrative job, something that some LEAs will probably take on while others won't.'
And he is not alone. Longfield says: 'Of course we are forever grateful to Jamie Oliver. But [with an election approaching] the Government needed to be seen to be doing something fast. Everyone's worried it will slide once the media spotlight's off.'
'If the campaign's success depends on Jamie Oliver's continued involvement, it's a failure,' argues Whitehouse. 'Only a change in consumer attitudes – to which the food industry has to respond – will leave a legacy.'
Most agree that this approach to the issue will educate people and gradually change their purchasing habits.
Olympic health message
Greenwich Borough Council head of communications Katrinia Delaney says the campaign is continuing apace in the area as authorities 'pool together the message of healthy eating and health and activity'. And parents are now effecting change themselves: 'We're all much more aware that dinosaur-shaped chicken is not good for kids.'
Fleishman-Hillard director and head of health team Claire Ashbridge-Thomlinson says: 'Oliver's involvement is less important now the issue has become so overtly political. Achievement of the campaign objectives now will be driven principally by funding.'
However, the cause does need a champion if pressure is to be maintained during the nitty-gritty of drafting legislation.
Oliver's publicist, The Outside Organisation's Peter Berry, assures us the chef will not let it go: 'He'll give the Government another kick if they need it.' A one-off 'progess report' programme is in the pipeline, through which Oliver is expected to appeal for more money.
Out of the media spotlight, former Feed me Better campaign manager Gateley also continues her involvement, being employed by the DfES to help set up The School Food Trust. This independent body will launch in the new year, targeting caterers, schools and parents to ensure recommendations are implemented on the ground.
But if Oliver is to remain involved, he must avoid creating 'message fatigue' or 'becoming a bore', warns Hawkes. Similarly, Edelman director John Lehal believes the campaign is currently 'too much of a one-man band'. Instead, alliances should be formed with other food and health groups – new faces should be found to champion it.
This year was a watershed for British school dinners. But much remains to be done to ensure Oliver's PR triumph does not end up a flash in the pan.
New school meals: many initiatives but few results
The latest DfES report in October said the Government is investing £220m over three years.
All schools that receive Greenwich Borough Council's school dinner – 82 of 88 in the borough, plus one private school outside – receive new and improved meals, with no processed ingredients, except for tinned tomatoes and frozen peas.
More than 7,000 'Feed me Better' packs have been sent out to schools across the country, although no one knows how many have actually improved their meals – or by how much.
The School Meals Review Panel was set up, and released a report on 3 October. This recommended that minimum levels of nutrition be written into the Education Bill, that catering staff receive extra training and that Ofsted inspect schools' approach to healthy eating.