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Thoughts on Jamie Oliver. We’re Not Related.

April 7, 2010

Lots of my food friends have been talking about Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. If you haven’t heard, Jamie Oliver is a British celebrity chef who has made it his mission to improve the quality of food that people eat, particularly what food is served in schools to children. In Food Revolution, Oliver sets up shop in Huntington, West Virginia, deemed the unhealthiest town in America, and sets about the business of exposing people, especially schoolchildren, to better nutrition through forgetting processed food and embracing whole foods made from real ingredients. To put it mildly, he was not warmly welcomed.

After seeing three episodes (all available for free on Hulu), I’m supportive and appreciative of Oliver’s efforts, but saddened by the results thus far. First, from a critical perspective, Oliver had the wrong attitude from the beginning. You can’t come into a town (or school lunchroom, as the case may be), loudly proclaim everyone in town is “wrong”, and expect them to NOT get defensive.  Small-town West Virginia is going to take one look at Brit-accented, pomaded-hair, white-coated Chef Oliver and immediately shut him down. It’s a cultural trait of Americans to act like babies when anyone ever tells them that they’re something other than #1 in anything. So if Oliver is anything but surprised when he wasn’t welcomed as a messiah, that’s his problem. Since the same thing happened when he made similar efforts in the UK, either he really didn’t learn a lesson or he wanted conflict and resistance for television drama.

That being said, I do think Oliver was genuinely outraged at what he found in school kitchens in Huntington. Why aren’t you? Unless your kid goes to private school, your kids are offered the same food in their schools: processed, industrial food high in fat and sodium, reheated instead of cooked, lacking any semblance to “real” food. Trust me, I taught in a low-income public high school for years. Not once did I eat “hot lunch” at school. Even the “salad bar” was mostly toppings. The only veggies were iceberg lettuce and chopped peperoncinis. This food is crap. Period. I would not eat it and I sure as shit would not feed it to my child. Actually, I wouldn’t even feed it to my dog.

With many, many of the students I taught, they ate fast-food breakfast, fast-food or school lunch, and fast-food dinner, every day. I used to have many conversations about food with my students, because in the environmental sustainability course I taught, we had a giant food unit where we covered these very ideas, but from an environmental standpoint. What I found is that many kids were willing to try food I prepared from scratch and embraced that, and an equal number were resistant, and, even if they tried food I prepared, they would say it didn’t taste good. As much as I would like to attribute this to my lackluster cooking skills, I honestly believe that most of the resistant students just didn’t know what real flavor was. Their taste buds were trained to appreciate only salt and fat because they never, ever ate anything fresh. Most students didn’t know where their food came from or how agriculture worked. Many thought “from scratch” means you made it at home, no matter how many pre-made ingredients were involved.  Cooking skills? Non-existent.

The people of Huntington were defensive, and to a certain extent, they shouldn’t have been. It’s certainly not the surly head lunchlady’s fault that our food policy in American supports cheap, processed, high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. Valuing portion size over quality, nutritional value, and source of ingredients has, very quickly, become part of American culture. I mean, look at the dining scene in St Louis: one need only see the lines waiting to belly-up to a trough of pasta at Cunetto’s to know this. But here’s the thing: this pattern of agriculture and eating is relatively new, and it’s about time we break pattern that reinforces this exponentially-increasing problem.

This is one thing that Oliver hits spot-on: we have to start with the kids. In Food Revolution, opponents of Oliver basically argue that kids won’t eat food unless its handheld, dippable, shaped like a dinosaur, is drenched in HFCS, or comes with cartoon characters on the package.  Um, I call bullshit. Since when do we let kids call policy shots, folks? Here’s a lesson you learn early as a teacher: you don’t engage in a power struggle with children because YOU are the adult and YOU have the power. So, too fucking bad if kids really want to snort Pixy Stix and mainline Mountain Dew in lieu of fruits and vegetables: schools should not be catering (no pun intended) to that. If kids are never exposed to “real” food, of course they won’t like it.  What good are nutrition lesson in health class if those lessons are completely undermined in the cafeteria? Maybe we should give schools decent funding so they don’t have to rely on pimping kids’ health out to to the commodity food industry and the soda and junk food companies who get exclusive selling and advertising rights (quite cheaply, I might add) to young captive minds quid pro quo for computers or stadium scoreboards.

But schools are also constrained not by budget, but by USDA regulations, which, let’s be real, are totally influenced by corporate lobbying. In short, your elected officials sell out your kids to corporate interests. So don’t let them.

Garden, even if you only have a few containers on a windowsill. Tell your kids where meat comes from. Support local food producers who do their best to operate outside of the industrial agriculture complex. Eat vegetables. Cook, damn it. Teach a kid to cook with real ingredients; how empowering is that? If people don’t know how to cook, they are beholden to prepared, processed, unhealthy food . Shop around the perimeter of the grocery story. Don’t buy things with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Support locally-owned restaurants who use local ingredients. If you have children, speak up about cafeteria food and marketing to children. You don’t have to “eat perfect”, but our food dollars are tremendously powerful, and you essentially vote each time you buy food.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is simply exposing what many in the food community already understand to a wider environment. It’s the perfect catalyst to address food issues with friends who might otherwise be uninformed. I encourage you to spread the word about the show, the issues it raises, and the implications for the health of Americans.

What do you think? Did you watch Food Revolution? What were your thoughts?

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2010 11:22 am

    Brava. Holy cow, have you ever hit a pet peeve of mine. We have opted out of the school lunch program because it is, frankly, shit. I’m additionally offended by all the ‘extras’ available in the cafeterias…ice cream, chips, etc…for an additional fee. I am a FIRM believer that if kids are hungry enough, they’ll eat what is put in front of them even if it is not their favorite food. Just don’t make them eat salmon cakes (blech).

    So.

    Put healthy, nutritious foods in front of the children, and if they balk at first, so what? The combination of hunger and peer pressure will eventually cave them…and they’ll learn to enjoy it. While we of course cannot control what their parents send to school or, worse, BRING to school for the kids, we should be outraged that our schools are encouraging bad habits. And I, like you, have been so angry that we teach our kids healthy habits out of one side of our mouth and then feed them dirt with the other. It’s bad enough that right now our district sends home monthly ‘Nutrition Nugget’ newsletters…and then offer the aforementioned candy at lunch.

    Then again, maybe I’m a bit of a hardass.

  2. MaryAnn Winkelmann permalink
    April 8, 2010 12:07 am

    Jamie Oliver would be shocked no matter what school district he visited. The schools my children attend pass off the worse food imaginable and call it lunch. Haystack which is a bowl of fritos (corn chips) with a blob of greasy chili on top. Nutrition, I don’t think so.

  3. April 8, 2010 8:51 am

    My students this year were very interested in learning about food and trying new foods. Some of them are excited to try the farmers markets this year, too, after we finished our unit on food. We underestimate them most of the time.

  4. KtMeyers permalink
    April 8, 2010 3:28 pm

    My kid goes to the Maplewood Richmond Heights elementary school. It’s not perfect, but it’s awfully good for any school, let alone a public one. The utilize lots of local produce (and specify so on the monthly menu), and have their own garden that is mostly kid run.

    And, it’s a good blend of foods that kids (some very low income) are familiar with, as well as being healthy. For example, they do fries, but they’re oven baked. They do chicken sandwiches, but they’re on whole wheat buns, and the pizza is on a whole wheat crust.

    I have a distant hope that it could work as a model for other, larger districts.

  5. Amy in StL permalink
    April 28, 2010 5:00 pm

    Seen this? http://fedupwithschoollunch.blogspot.com/ Definitely more interesting than some uptight Brit telling those silly Americans how to eat.

    I also think it would be great if kids were taught to eat better. But often parents in low income schools can’t afford better/fresher food. They may also lack the time or energy to prepare it. In addition, they probably weren’t taught how to cook and if you don’t know how to cook; fumbling around with “from scratch” ingredients makes it a long unpleasant process. I see a lot of this in my parents neighborhood where the families are all stretched to the limit for time and money.

    Although I can afford good food; I often find that the 1.5 hours each evening that I have at home (that doesn’t involve chores/sleeping) are spent doing something fun. I wasn’t taught how to cook fresh ingredients by my parents; so cooking is hard and often I ruin dinner and end up eating a sandwich so I can go to bed. And it’s not for lack of trying; but I’m truly a poor cook. I am a great baker but cooking never turns out well for me – which is compounded by my crappy oven in my rental.

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