For some years, there has been vocal criticism of the low-quality food being fed to children in schools. Mostly processed and laced with fat and sugar, this “food” has become a target in the quest to combat the highest-ever obesity rates and declining health of children in the US today.
But criticism only goes so far. At some point in any battle, action must be taken. Interestingly, this action has come from those who know food best: chefs. Culinary legend Alice Waters, creator of California Cuisine, arrived in the late nineties with her Edible Schoolyard program. Chef Ann Cooper, the “Renegade Lunch Lady,” has been fighting for healthy school lunches now for ten years and is the subject of a feature in the May–June 2010 issue of Calmful Living. The French documentary Food Beware followed one village in France that converted all the local students to healthy and organic cuisine. The commonality among all these stories: the great taste of fresh, nutritious food, and the education of children as well as parents about what it is and how to prepare it at a practical level. Education was followed by acceptance and real change.
Now famed British chef Jamie Oliver has crossed the pond with guns blazing to lend his voice to the cry for our children’s health and to foster a grassroots revolution in the cafeterias of American schools. His new television reality show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, finds Jamie tackling the city rated highest in the nation for obesity: Huntington, West Virginia.
Oliver is no stranger to this battle. In 2005, he took to the airwaves in his native England to change what he viewed as the “rubbish” children were being fed in schools. The whole while, he met with resistance from those who didn’t want to change the status quo—as is now happening here. But he persevered and is now credited with having created a massive improvement in Britain’s school lunch program.
“This is not an English guy coming over here looking down at anyone,” Oliver said in a recent teleconference with reporters about the show. “It's exactly the same back home. I mean, basically, all humans hate change and it's change that we need. You’re always going to get that kind of kickback.”
But Oliver shows early on, right in the first two episodes of the series, that he definitely knows how to reach out, demonstrate and get his ideas received. His modus operandi is apparent from the very start: he is getting in and meeting with elementary school students, educating them on vegetables (of which they were shockingly ignorant and unable to name any by sight in a classroom demonstration); he picks out and takes on the diet of a local family—the members of which are all severely overweight; then he opens up his own shop in downtown Huntington and invites anyone and everyone in to learn to cook properly.
“My general attitude, which is fairly positive, is the key to getting these stories across,” Oliver said. “You put your head down, you get in the community, start working with families, start building relationships, and really let word of mouth get out there that this change is positive—it can help you. It can help you save money, it can help the health of your family, and as knowledge it should be and must be passed down to your kids and your kids’ kids.”
The diets of the students, and of the family he “adopts,” are almost exclusively frozen, fried and high in gratuitous sugar. On Oliver’s first day at the school, they are serving pizza for breakfast. Bread is the most plentiful food group on the students’ lunch trays. The copious ovens in the cafeteria, which Oliver points out would be the pride of any restaurant kitchen, are not used for cooking but for warming processed foods—and Oliver remarks that the list of ingredients for those foods would tongue-twist a scientist.
He definitely has his work cut out for him. But given his past success, and the dent he’s already made in the first two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, it’s doubtful that he will leave this town the same way he found it.
Oliver credits the power of the airwaves for the success he’s had in England, and hopefully will have here. “Let's be really frank about it: TV is still the premier communicator in the country,” he said. “Yes, the Internet, editorials and newspapers are incredibly important; but, together, all of those forces can be used as a wonderful force for good. When I got my campaign in England six years ago, there's absolutely no way that, without our TV series, I would have got $1 billion out of the British government and changed the standards in schools and banned the junk.”
His impact is already being felt. On his website, Oliver has posted a petition for viewers of the show—or anyone—to sign. The petition is calling for the saving of cooking skills and better school food for our children, and he plans to take it directly to the president and first lady at the conclusion of the series. So far, tens of thousands of Americans have signed. You can also—the link is below.
To find out more about Jamie, his television shows, cookbooks and many activities, go to his website at www.jamieoliver.com.
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution runs weekly on ABC television. Check your local listings for times.