I’ll apologize up front..this may not be the most cohesive thing I’ve ever posted. My head is spinning and I could take it in a dozen different directions. But I’m just going to start writing and hit a few of the high points. There will be plenty of links if you care to explore things further.
A few weeks ago I saw an advertisement for a new TV show, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution”. The premise looked interesting…a celebrity chef from Britain goes into “the unhealthiest community in America” and tries to improve their eating habits. I made a mental note to tune in…and then promptly forgot all about it.
Then a couple of days ago I spotted a headline in my news feed—Kids to Jamie Oliver: Bag your healthy lunches. It went on to explain that Jamie’s “revolution” wasn’t getting a lot of traction with school children. They much preferred their chicken nuggets, pizza and chocolate milk to the healthier fare he was providing.
Reading that article made me even more interested in seeing the show. A quick online search turned up a link that allows you to watch the the two episodes that have already aired. If you’re into reality TV, this program takes the genre to a whole new level.
The executive producer is Ryan Seacrest, the American Idol guy. He shares production duties with Oliver and some of the same people who bring us “Extreme Makeover Home Edition”. Let’s just say there’s no shortage of contrived drama and conflict, and it’s all pasted together with a mixture of hair gel and tears.
Prior to watching the show I didn’t know anything about Jamie Oliver. Born to working-class parents in England, he dropped out of high school, went to cooking school, and then enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of celebrity chefdom. In 1999 his show The Naked Chef debuted and his cookbook became a number one best-seller in the UK.
He has subsequently become the head of his own multinational company, with 12 TV shows and 10 cookbooks to his credit. He owns scores of restaurants, sells cookware, and even produces a namesake magazine Jamie. His wife is a former model, and though only in his mid 30s, his personal empire is reportedly in excess of $60 million dollars. Life is obviously pretty good for Mr. Oliver.
He has used his wealth and fame to champion the causes he supports. He led a campaign to get unhealthy foods removed from British schools. This brought on radical changes and led to the British government contributing an additional billion dollars to fund school lunches. He definitely knows how to get things done.
But if the first two episodes are any indication, Oliver may have bit off more than he can chew. Here in the USA things are bad—very, very bad. On his first morning in the school cafeteria he is introduced to “breakfast pizza” and sees children eating sugared cereals bathed in a luminous strawberry flavored sugary milk. For lunch it’s chicken nuggets and a chemistry experiment that somehow turns into something resembling mashed potatoes. While a little bit of real food like fruit and fresh-baked bread does make it onto the childen’s plates, it appears that the majority of it gets scraped into the trash can.
Then Oliver gets his big chance to cook his food for the kids. This is not without its fair share of drama, as the school’s “lunch ladies” would much prefer to stick to the status quo. Despite his efforts to build excitement for his healthy offerings (he visits classrooms dressed up as a pea!) the children are unimpressed. We get to watch as they spit out his food and then dump it in the trash. Jaime doesn’t quite understand this; in Britain he say’s he’d tell them to go back and finish.
Jaime also visits a local family, all of whom are overweight. It is here that we see exactly where the children develop their taste for unhealthy fare. He piles the kitchen table with all of the foods they’ve consumed over the past week–a monotone mountain of brown and tan—pizzas, corn dogs, hamburgers, with nary a vegetable in sight. Every meal comes out of the microwave or the deep fryer.
Needless to say “mom” is a little embarrassed by this (and a freezer crammed with about 40 cheap pizzas). Jamie lets her know that she is contributing to her children’s obesity and shortening their lives. You would think that seeing her 300 lb. 12 year-old son on a daily basis might have given her a hint something was wrong—but apparently this news must come as quite a shock to her, because she cries.
Jaime whips up a healthy meal for them, and also goes out in the yard and helps them bury the fryer. That’s some good TV! He also has a heart-to-heart with the obese 12 year-old, who admits the other kids tease him about his weight. Jaime offers to give him cooking lessons and tells him the girls are going to really be impressed when he can whip up a nice meal.
Conflict, drama, contrived for TV stunts, predictable tears, this show has it all. Oliver hopes the show leads to a “food revolution” across America’s school cafeterias. He’s also angling to arrange a meeting with Michelle Obama so they can join forces and end childhood obesity. He has a petition on his website that he hopes to deliver to the White House.
But if the results of his efforts in his home country are any example, Oliver is up for some fierce resistance. When the British government implemented his school-lunch recommendations the negative reaction was dramatic. Parents pulled 400,000 children from the school-lunch program, and many opted to hand food to their kids through the gates of school yards. Vendors set up outside schools to sell food, and enterprising students began selling junk food to peers in schools, which led to kids getting suspended for “dealing” potato chips.
A less-than-flattering view of Oliver and his efforts to influence the way people eat and how much the government should pay for it can be found in this article from Reason.com. With over 300 comments and counting, it’s clear that “making school lunches healthier” is more controversial than you might think.
Civil liberties aside, many people are less than convinced that any government program is going to change the way people eat. On a recent episodeof his late-night show David Letterman let Oliver know that his efforts were noble but futile. The comedian turned serious, saying that in our food culture it was virtually impossible to lose weight. He said that in the future he expects everyone to weigh 400 to 500 lbs and that science will have found a way to keep us healthy at that weight.
I could continue, but I would like to get this up and posted before tonight’s episode airs (9pm ABC). Tune in and see what happens. Like it or not, it will certainly make you think a little bit more about the way we feed our children.