The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and campaigners aiming to improve the quality of school lunches are to meet with the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, after Oliver teamed up with the leaders of hundreds of schools urging the government to tackle the rise in child obesity since the Covid pandemic.

Oliver’s charity Bite Back 2030, with headteachers and academy trust executives, wrote to Zahawi to lobby for changes to the government’s planned food strategy, and to call for schools in England to publish annual food reports showing what progress they have made in meeting standards on health and nutrition.

Oliver – who helped start a national debate over unhealthy school lunches when he exposed the spread of Turkey Twizzlers as part of the 2005 TV series Jamie’s School Dinners – said the quality of food was unreliable in too many schools and still needed to be improved.

Related: Number of children on free school meals in England soars to 1.7m

“Whether your child gets good food at school is currently a postcode lottery. That’s why I’m supporting a growing army of teachers, young people and charities who are all calling on Nadhim Zahawi to make it policy that every school publishes their annual plan so every child gets healthy nutritious food at school, no matter where they live,” Oliver said.

The letter drew a quick response from Zahawi after Oliver tweeted about the issue on Wednesday, with the education secretary thanking him “for raising this important issue” and offering to arrange a meeting.

The letter was backed by executives representing many of England’s largest multi-academy trusts – including Ark, Star Academies and Ormiston Academies Trust – totalling more than 600 individual schools.

“We know that a major driver of poor Covid-19 outcomes in the UK has been our spiralling obesity rates,” the letter to Zahawi states.

“The causes of childhood obesity and health inequalities are of course complex, but we believe – as school leaders – that with young people in school 190 days of the year, schools should be supported to do everything we can to set the stage for dietary health. That means government taking the opportunity – as it formulates its levelling up strategy and food strategy – to rethink, review and reform how the school food system works in England.”

The letter follows a recent report compiled by Bite Back that highlighted the vastly different experiences of food offered at secondary schools, with pupils on free school meals reporting they were given fewer choices.

One student said: “There aren’t any healthy options, to be fair. My school used to do salad bowls and fruit bowls, but they’ve stopped that now and it is literally just junk food.”

Critics say one reason for the decline in food quality and choice has been the Department for Education’s failure to increase payments for school food, including infant free school meals available for all children in the first years of primary school. The government pays just £2.34 for each child’s food per day, a rate that has barely changed since 2011.

This article was written by Richard Adams Education editor from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to