Story by Jamie Oliver

A few years ago, in Rotherham, I met a man called Jeff. He was 83 years old and he’d never cooked a fresh meal in his life. Jeff’s wife had done all the cooking for over 50 years but, sadly, she’d become ill and so Jeff was left to do all the food preparation.

He and his wife had been living on tinned food for a few months when Jeff decided that it wasn’t the best of diets for an elderly couple – he needed to learn to cook. Jeff visited the local Citizens’ Advice and asked if they could suggest somewhere for him to attend cooking lessons. They couldn’t. There was nowhere. Jeff and his wife were destined to end their lives eating tinned and reheated food.

Luckily, Jeff became part of the Ministry of Food project in Rotherham and I taught him to cook, along with Dan the doorman, Mick the Miner, mums Tash and Clare, and a handful of other great people of all ages who had never been taught to cook but who desperately wanted to learn.

After the Channel 4 TV cameras left town, the Ministry of Food centre which I’d set up in Rotherham’s main square, remained open, funded by the far-sighted local council to the tune of £130,000 a year. In two years, this has become one of the busiest shops in the town centre providing what is, in my opinion, incredible value for public money.

Last year, the Rotherham Ministry of Food centre taught 6,500 people how to cook using fresh ingredients. These included everyone from firemen to teachers, care-home workers to school kids – when the centre put up a poster in the window advertising summer holiday classes for kids, the places were filled within 24 hours. Classes are consistently booked out for months in advance.

This is not merely successful, but a fantastic community resource which works.
Of the 6,500 people taught by the Rotherham Ministry last year, almost all will have a story to tell about how it’s changed their lives, taught them to think about the food they eat, helped them lose weight, helped them save money on the weekly shop, and helped them gain confidence.

So you would think that local councils would be falling over each other to open their own Ministry Centres – and indeed Bradford council in late 2009 and Leeds Primary Care Trust earlier this year, did just that. Various other councils and PCTs expressed keen interest – until they were told that budgets needed to be slashed.

Now, I’ve heard that the Ministry in Rotherham could be a victim of funding cuts. The local council there is doing everything it can to keep the Ministry open and I hope it will succeed but I can’t understand why keeping it open should even be in doubt at all. Each Ministry of Food Centre is booked up at least three months in advance so the demand is there. It’s abundantly clear that this is one of the few strategies that is actually working that helps people overcome their problems with food.

Obesity and its related diseases cost the NHS upwards of £4bn a year. I read recently that the number of people having gastric band operations has increased massively in the last 5 years. And yet here we have a practical solution, proven to work, which costs a fraction of £4bn.

If I opened a Ministry of Food centre in every local authority in this country, I reckon it would cost around £140,000 a year to run each one – that’s just over £32m for all of them. That’s £32m a year for a place that people like Jeff and Tash and Dan and Clare all over the UK can go and learn to cook. We could teach around 3 million people a year – that’s 3 million people who would learn to cook well, eat well, shop well for fresh food. Can you imagine what that would do to the £4bn NHS expenditure on obesity? I believe you’d see it come down rapidly within 18 months.

I understand that cuts need to be made. I understand that these are difficult times. But I can’t understand why something that can save billions of pounds in the long term can be at risk because of a few million quid. In my opinion, cutting the funding for local projects which directly empower and transform thousands of lives is both foolhardy and a false economy, particularly in a country which is spending billions on obesity-related diseases.
So here’s the plea. If the local councils can’t afford to set up and keep running these inspiring, revolutionary, socially vital places, then it’s up to local businesses to get involved.

I’m talking to businessmen and women up and down the country – some of them in charge of huge multi-national companies, some of them running smaller but successful local firms. All of them appreciate the need to do something about our obesity problem and all of them also understand that being involved with a community project like a Ministry of Food centre, is good for business.

But I need more help. I’m ready to work with pretty much anyone, within reason of course, to get more of these cooking centres up and running. I hope that the coalition government is aware of the important role that these places play in everyday life and I hope that they will show the willingness to invest in them, although in true “Big Society” style, we may have to do it ourselves.

My team is ready to work hard to make a difference so please join us.

Note: This is the full version of a piece that appeared in the Observer, a UK daily newspaper, on Sunday 19 September 2010.