By Duncan Walker
The clamour to provide children with better school dinners is all very well. But could it also mean better food for working adults?
Under the orange glow of heat lamps an over-thick pizza crust slowly takes on a biscuit-like crunch, its tinned tomato and processed cheese topping blackening as the hours pass by.
Even the Cookie Monster is persuading children to eat well
Nearby, a vat of baked beans softens to a porridgy mush, the intended chip and sausage companions lie in serving trays, sweating in their own fatty oils.
Such horrors, we now know thanks to Jamie's School Dinners, should not be visited on children - who apparently need less salt and sugar, more vegetables and vitamins to help them learn.
But for many of the millions of adult Britons still making the daily trip to the staff canteen such culinary and nutritional disasters are all too often a part of the working day.
Is there any hope then that the drive towards improved children's food will benefit their parents?
It is beyond doubt that there is a link between what employees shovel into their mouths and the work that gets done, says dietician Rosan Meyer of the Imperial College School of Medicine.
Spending an average of £2.02 (one third of women spend less than £1) and taking just 25 minutes for lunch, the typical British worker does not have the finances or time for sophisticated options.
The chips, burgers and the like that many opt for aren't much better for adults than they are for children.
"If you have a lot of carbohydrates - chips, crisps, sandwiches - you get very tired after lunch. Your 'workability' reduces," Ms Meyer explains by way of example.
"Over the long term, because all of these choices are very high in fat, you are increasing your weight and the chances of coronary heart disease among other things."
Cake and custard
While lifestyles as a whole are to blame for such problems, some of this excess eating is inevitably done during working hours, and examples of less-than-healthy canteen options are not difficult to come by.
Salad isn't always the staff canteen's best seller
Sharon, who works for the Met Police, dishes up a fairly typical example: "The majority of canteen food served to police officers and police staff is really poor," she says. "Chips are served alongside chocolate cake and custard.
"Healthier options are rare with officers still opting for the infamous '999' breakfast, a full English fry-up with black pudding, sausage and bacon, served 24-hours a day and nicknamed the 'heart-attack-on-a-plate'."
But Jamie's School Dinners did have a knock-on effect in terms of what adults are eating, research suggests. Because of the programme 28% are thinking more carefully about meals at home, while 23% are doing more to find out about healthy food, a YouGov poll for private medical insurer PruHealth suggested.
And many people are in fact choosing to eat well at work, suggests Eurest, a major catering service provider. Its tactics include a "traffic light" system highlighting what is and isn't good for you, a forthcoming "balanced choices" programme and more cooked-to-order fresh food.
The fact people still manage to eat badly has more to do with personal choice, it suggests.
"The healthy option is offered," says a spokeswoman. "No caterer could afford to not put a healthy option on, but with grown ups it has to be a choice."
The idea that adults, like children, sometimes need to be led towards healthier options is something that Rosan Meyer agrees with.
"With a working generation that started school dinners a long time ago, they're used to these things like hamburgers, chips and so on."
And despite the clamour to be seen to be pushing children's health "the media has not influenced the health promotion of adults," Ms Meyer suggests.
Children have Jamie Oliver to inspire the government to bring them better food. Even Sesame Street's Cookie Monster is getting in on the act, warning that biscuits are a "sometimes food" and extolling the virtues of fruit.
Adults, perhaps, are still looking for their own champion.
Have you had a bad canteen experience? Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
My question is simple, and based on canteen dining nationwide. Is "buffet" French for "congealed", or is it simply a speciality of British canteens to increase the amount of misery in the workplace?
My other half makes me eat broccolli and salad and all that stuff at home. I rely on my work canteen for unsupervised access to chips and pizza. Let's not let the health police ruin everything.
John Trihy, London
I am the chef and catering manager in a factory canteen. I offer healthy eating options alongside a main meal such as a roast or casserole. I also have on sale chips and other fast foods and my staff sell a lot of chips! One reason that fast food sells is because it can be eaten away from the canteen. Guys will take a pie and chips or a burger because it is portable and easy to eat.
There is no excuse for adults. Grab yourself a cookbook and learn how to cook!
My previous employer changed suppliers in the canteen and prices went up, while choice and quality dropped significantly. A complaints book was introduced but was quickly withdrawn due to the volume of criticism it attracted. We then all received an email from facilities management telling us to stop being so harsh in our complaints as we were upsetting the new suppliers!
John Franklin, Macclesfield UK
As a pescatorian (fish eating vegetarian) I have believed in healthy eating for a long time, and would get up 20 minutes early each day to produce a fresh salad. This would usually be of the healthy Mediterranean type. What has been the result of all of this? Well it didn't stop me being off work for the past six months due to heart failure caused by a virus infection. Maybe I should have dumped the lettuce and enjoyed the stodge that everyone else had!
Philip Meers, Birmingham, England
Rather than attempting to get by on the least potatoey potatoes I've ever tasted and lukewarm beans I usually just bring in a packed lunch. That way I can get a salad at a fraction of the price of those on sale.
Andrew Lamberton, Edinburgh, Scotland
Are adults in the UK really that stupid they need to be told that fresh fruit and vegetables are better for you than eating chips or McDonalds? Do obese people think that they got larger from drinking water? Will we be getting told to breathe out after we breathe in?
Gerry Whoriskey, Gravesend, Kent, UK
We allegedly have a subsidised canteen, but healthy options such as salads are almost three times the price of "pie, chips & beans" stodge. The cheapest drinks are cans of fizzy drinks. We can't even get a decent quality of drinking water.
At Eden where I work the staff food is generally so healthy I have to bring in my own junk food to eat!!
I think Jamie should witness our canteen! Although kindly subsidised by my employer the philosophy of waste not want not is taken to extremes. A dozen or so roasted chickens can feed 400 people for four days reincarnated on day two as chicken and monosodium glutamate curry, day three as chicken curry baked potato filling with extra spice, and day four as coronation chicken.
Staff canteens and school dining halls are the same. What chance do we have as a nation when Jamie Oliver's school dinner campaign attracted votes of around 300,000 while the Big Brother series managed to pull millions of votes?
Tony C, Kings Langley, Herts
(At our) staff canteen there is a salad counter, but it's so popular that what's fresh on a Monday is still being served as "fresh" on the Thursday/Friday!
Of all establishments, hospitals should be leading the way and yet our local general hospital canteen routinely serves up veg that can be destroyed with the back of a spoon, or come pre-coated in butter. Supposedly 'roasted' veg like parsnips or potatoes are actually deep fried and most of the salad self-serve items are coated with sauces or mayonnaise of unknown composition.
Paul D, Doncaster
My first experience of a works canteen was at a cheese factory in the north. At breakfast, we would all have toast awash with butter then smother it in salt. Horrendously unhealthy but we thought it was fabulous.
Sarah Alexander, Amersham, England
If we only had a canteen, I'm forced to go out or have a sandwich in front of my screen.
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