Jamie OliverFrom the international edition of the “Why Elections Matter” handbook comes news that chef and school-food activist Jamie Oliver‘s well-regarded and successful set of school food reforms are being dissed by Britain’s new Tory health minister.

Oliver has spent years on the program, which has improved school menus, kids’ eating habits and, according to studies, student performance. But the Tories are running the show now, and Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has decided that it smacks too much of the nanny state:

Addressing doctors at the summer conference of the British Medical Association, Lansley said: “If we are constantly lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do, we will actually find that we undermine and are counterproductive in the results that we achieve.

Jamie Oliver, quite rightly, was talking about trying to improve the diet of children in schools and improving school meals, but the net effect was the number of children eating school meals in many of these places didn’t go up, it went down.”

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Apparently, in some districts there was a 25 percent reduction in the number of kids eating in the lunchroom. As Matt Yglesias observed, to respond to that drop by ending healthy menu reforms and forcing 100 percent of the kids to return to heavily processed, less healthy food seems a bit odd.

Now, the program hasn’t been canceled just yet, though it is rather ominously set for a “review” by the new Tory Education Secretary. Meanwhile, Jamie Oliver let loose on Lansley, reports the U.K. Guardian:

To say school dinners hasn’t worked is not just inaccurate, but is also an insult to the hard work of hundreds of thousands of dinner ladies, teachers, headteachers, and parent helpers who strive to feed schoolkids a nutritious, hot meal for 190 days of the year.

Reformers are understandably on edge given that the Tories are definitely dropping a Labor government plan to feed an additional 500,000 low-income children free meals. Times are tough, you know.

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Meanwhile, some may wonder why conservatives so wholeheartedly embrace permissiveness when it comes to food, given that it isn’t generally a quality one associates with political conservatism. Again and again, we hear, as Lansley said, that we can’t put healthy food in school because “kids don’t want it.” Or that kids have the “right” to drink soda and chocolate milk at school, regardless of parents’ preferences. I should remind my right-wing friends that such permissiveness is a slippery slope. If it applies to food, then surely it applies to sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll?

Perhaps this new study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association might shed some light on this cognitive dissonance. Children in families that share meals more frequently tend to eat better, research shows. So a group of nutritionists and epidemiologists from the University of Minnesota set out to understand what it is about families that make some more likely than others to sit down to dinner together. They looked at parenting styles, which they divided into four categories — authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful:

Parents who were empathic and respectful, but who maintained clear boundaries and expectations, were classified as authoritative. Authoritarian parents maintained strict discipline and showed little warmth. The permissive style was empathic but with few rules, while the neglectful style was emotionally uninvolved with no rules or expectations.

They found that authoritative parents were associated with higher rates of family meals. Permissive ones were more likely to let their kids eat what they wanted when they wanted, which leads to less healthy eating habits down the road.

OK, so this study looked at meals at home, not school, but I imagine that the Tories would argue that Oliver’s plans have all along smacked of authoritarianism, while Oliver (and any reasonable person) would say that he represents an authoritative style. Anyone who saw the teary, emotional chef work his magic on the residents of Huntington, W.Va., would be hard-pressed to describe Oliver as authoritarian.

To me, the study suggests that firm, principled-but-respectful guidance that provides clear boundaries surrounding food will succeed in any environment. Reformers would do well to embrace that approach rather than the permissive “give them what they want” approach that conservatives seem to prefer.

I have a feeling that the Tories will soon regret this attack on Oliver’s work. And if nothing else, with the U.S. midterm elections approaching, here’s hoping Americans learn from British experience how quickly good reforms can begin to unravel when the other side gets back in power.

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