LONDON — Turkey twizzlers once divided the nation; now they appear to have united it in a surge of national purpose for reform. This is thanks to a new political hero, chef Jamie Oliver, who, from one of the most despised backgrounds in Britain — white working-class boy from Essex — has shown imagination and drive in improving the diet of other working-class people.

His medium for his mission was a TV series on the lunches provided in most state schools. He compared the impoverished standard of the food served with what could be served with a little more money, much more imagination and the will to make the change.

The emblem of the execrable food was the turkey twizzler. This is a product of another Essex boy made good. Bernard Mathews rears millions of turkeys and finds ingenious ways of converting their flesh into novelty shapes. The flesh is so soft it can be made to resemble anything.

In the case of the twizzler it resembles perhaps the inner sole of an infant shoe — so untextured and so tasteless that without a good deal of additives it would taste of nothing and would fall apart at the first touch. Oliver held it up as the epitome of the bad food that is fed to Britain’s school children.

Before the series, the turkey twizzler was familiar to one part of the nation, mainly white working class; and completely unknown to the other part — those who through class or ethnicity come from a richer food culture. The Daily Mirror confronted some of the latter with the twizzler: What did they think?

A typical response came from Miyuki Sakamoto, a Japanese journalist in London: “Is it really turkey? It’s more like sausage. I’d heard about school dinners, and I must say people in Japan have always taken these things very seriously. We have diet specialists to make sure that menus are not bad for the children.”

It should be added that the Bernard Mathews company both protested against the calumny of their product — and happily commented that sales were up one-third since the series. No such thing as bad publicity.

On the probable eve of a general election, the new education secretary, Ruth Kelly, has announced a large increase in funding for state-school meals. Critics cry “Labour jumping on a band wagon,” which is both true and unfair. Oliver has set the wagon rolling, so why not jump on it?

The problem has been that many parents are indifferent to food despite more than a decade of middle-class and official health propaganda urging them to forswear junk and processed food and eat five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day. Jamie Oliver, with his ebullient character, good looks and Essex accent can reach people that armies of prim nutritionists never can.

Food in Britain is as class and race divided as virtually everything else. The state primary school is about the only place where all mingle. Certain ethnic foods — Chinese, Indian, Italian, Greek, Thai — have been bowdlerized and standardized and sold as cheap, tasty food that is bought by all social groups.

Some cheap native British food — bacon, sausage and fried fish and chips — has survived into the mass market, but most has disappeared into regional and specialist enclaves. To those who live on a diet of turkey twizzlers and hamburgers with the occasional curry or pizza, native foods can seem inedibly alien or exotic.

The reason cited by historians for this destruction of a British food culture is the extent and speed with which industrial work and large cities replaced agricultural work and market towns in the 18th and 19th centuries.

From the very beginning, women and children were employed in the new mills and factories, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, and living in hovels without fresh water or cooking facilities.

No tradition of cooking and eating could survive this, and by the 19th century most of the industrial working class survived on cheap food they could find readily available — bread and offal processed into pies and sausages. It is not surprising that Britain produced the first mass manufacturers of processed food — helped by the demands of the military and the colonies — and today sustains several of the dominant food companies in the world.

The paucity of the British working-class diet was first officially noted as a serious problem in the Boer War (1899-1901) when it was recognized how many recruits were unfit for service due to malnutrition. The fruits of this awareness were gathered in World War II when the imposition of food rationing and instruction actually improved the diet of working-class people, even if the restrictions were a notable annoyance to the better off (whose protest at continuing food rationing ended the first Labour government in 1951).

But the early National Health Service, brought in by that Labour government, stressed the importance of nutrition for mothers and babies through the provision of free milk, orange juice and cod liver oil. Until the Conservative governments of 1979-1997, all children continued to be fed school milk and school dinners of a basic nutritional standard. These were done away with under the mantra of “parental choice” and “no to the nanny state.”

It took Oliver to bring home that parents often don’t make the right choices for their children, especially in food, and that nannies may be just what an impoverished child needs.

The brilliant aspect of his series was that he didn’t lecture but, over months, worked with schools’ lunch ladies, in a process of difficult mutual learning, to transform the dinners. New Labour, struggling under the legacy of Thatcher, has been criticized by Oliver for lacking the courage to advocate nannying and, isolated in government, has no means of instigating a process of mutual learning.

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