I ALWAYS had Jamie Oliver down as an annoying little jerk.

That fake 'Essex boy' act really grated, and the merest hint of one of those awful Sainsbury's adverts would have me reaching for the TV remote in a fury.

How my opinion of him has changed. He went from zero to hero almost overnight in my book for his single-handed shaming of our two-faced Government over school dinners.

Like just about everybody else in this country, I was deeply and profoundly shocked by his revelation that children at a school in Greenwich were being fed for 37p each.

That's less than many people spend on their cat's dinner, for God's sake.

Almost more shaming than that statistic, however, was the fact that it took a maverick celebrity chef to point this out to the world.

For all the Government's continual interference in our children's education - the constant tinkering with tests and targets, the never-ending rethinks on the curriculum and on exams - nobody seems to have given a toss about the most important thing of all: what our children were eating.

The nanny state banged on endlessly about the importance of a healthy, balanced diet, warned of an epidemic of childhood obesity and stressed the need for children to eat five portions of fresh fruit and veg a day.

Yet all the time, our kids were being fed stuff like nutritionally worthless turkey nuggets at school (no wonder they find it so hard to concentrate in class) and no-one, until Oliver, had the guts to tell us. Or could be bothered doing anything about it.

OK, so in York - according to a survey by a national newspaper - the amount being spent on food for the average school dinner is 44p. That's marginally better than for those poor kids in Greenwich - but it is still appalling.

So what if most kids weren't eating school dinners anyway? That is absolutely not the point. Perhaps more children would eat school dinners if they were worth eating. But the real point is that, as ever, it is those who have least who suffer the most. For youngsters from the most disadvantaged families, school dinner is just about the one chance they have of getting a decent, healthy meal. And instead, as we now know, the very youngsters who need it most are being served up rubbish. So much for Labour's caring, sharing, equal-opportunity society.

What makes me even more mad is that after Oliver had exposed this iniquity, the Government shamelessly tried to seek electoral advantage from it.

Up popped that anonymous speaking head Ruth Kelly with her "mini-manifesto" for children.

Nothing to do with Jamie Oliver, she said. She'd been planning to do something about school meals since the first day she took office. Shameful, shameful, shameful.

And what does her much-vaunted "mini-manifesto" amount to? There is a vague promise of more cash in a third Labour term to spend on new kitchen and dining areas. There are yet more targets - this time on minimum nutritional standards. And there is the School Meals Trust, a Quango that will seek, in best Government-speak, to "spread best practice".

But not one extra penny for schools to actually spend on food. Oh, no, that would conflict with the Government's high-minded principle that schools should be allowed to decide their own budgets. Instead, Kelly has come up with the startlingly stupid idea that parents themselves, rather than the Government, should take primary responsibility for their children's diet.

Interviewed on ITV, she said she would be seeking to encourage parents themselves to put pressure on schools to produce healthier school meals - so that schools themselves will allocate more from their existing budgets to food.

That disgusts me. Quite apart from the fact that it is just another sneaky Government attempt to pass the blame on to anybody but themselves, it won't work.

Perhaps it might, in nice middle- class areas where parents get involved in every aspect of their kids' lives - and where the youngsters already get healthy food at home anyway.

But what about kids from disadvantaged homes - the very kids who eat rubbish at home, and whose parents couldn't really care less about what they eat at school? Does Kelly really expect those parents to push schools to provide healthier meals?

Of course they won't. And it makes me angry that either our education secretary is too stupid to realise this, or that - more likely - she just doesn't care.

They're only poor kids, after all. And who cares about them?

Updated: 11:01 Friday, March 25, 2005