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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

By on March 27, 2010

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution premiered last night on ABC television. Although the premier was a double episode, i watched the one hour first episode available online. (UPDATE: the second episode is now up at ABC.com.)

Oliver is a British celebrity chef and cookbook author who has been given credit for initiating what became a complete overhaul of the lunch program in British schools. In this series, he comes to the town of Huntington, WV, named “the unhealthiest town in America” with the stated goal of starting the same revolution here.

In the opening episode, Oliver finds that, with a few exceptions, he is not going to be greeted with shouts of “viva la revolution” by the powers that be in the town of Huntington. The show kicks off with him rendered nearly speechless by a local radio DJ, who tells him on air that the people of Huntington don’t want to be told to “eat lettuce” by an outsider. But that’s only the beginning of his troubles.

His real nemesis is the collective ill will of the cafeteria workers at the elementary school where he has been given one week to try out his ideas to change the way the kids eat. Oliver’s brash manner and stark bluntness doesn’t get him off on the right foot with the ladies. He tells them straight out that everything they are doing in their kitchen is wrong and is sentencing the children to an early death. He’s right, of course, but his oven-side manner could use some work. It doesn’t make matters any better for him when he calls these mature women “girls” (not a demeaning term in his native Britain, but not appreciated here) and “lunch ladies” (they prefer to be called “cooks,” even though they do very little actual cooking).

Oliver may be brash and a bit naive about small-town American sensibilities, but its obvious he is on a mission, and he comes across as very sincere. I believe that much of what we saw tonight that wasn’t directly about food was typical trumped-up reality show “drama,” but if that gets people watching the show and thinking about what we eat, and more importantly what we are requiring our kids to eat in schools, then bring on the drama.

I think the segment of the show that made me most angry this evening was one where the woman in charge of meals for the school district lays out for Oliver the government requirements for school meals. The USDA which mandates what must be served in public school lunch programs serves big agriculture lobbyists at the cost of our children’s health. An example of this is the requirement that each meal must have two servings of bread. When Jamie Oliver makes his first lunch for the school, he is shocked that the principal demands he add another starch when he has already prepared brown rice. He ends up borrowing buns from the cafeteria’s regular lunch. This flies in the face of nearly every nutritional expert today, who are nearly unanimous in condemning the amount of bad carbohydrates we consume.

Overall, I think this program has a message Americans need to hear, and contains enough melodrama to keep them watching. At least the “deep fried coating” of drama won’t do them as much harm as the real one on their chicken nuggets.

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  • Did you read the Reason http://reason.com/blog/2010/03/25/now-playing-at-reason-the-case review of the show? I too watched the web preview and then watched the show last night and loved it. I totally disagree with Reason. I think Jamie did a good job of pointing out Govt waste (2 unnecessary breads, all the food thrown out, 3 kinds of colored milk) and ineffectiveness. His mission is to change hearts and minds and not promote more Govt (ridiculous) regulations.

    I agree with your review and felt sorry for anyone who goes up against those “lunch ladies”. I don't think the celebrity Jamie Oliver was prepared for such a inglorious reception.

    The only part I disagreed with was his chicken nugget experiment. Eating bits of bone, bone marrow, chicken skin, and non-choice chicken is not a bad thing, but a good thing. It's solid head to tail eating that minimizes waste, honors the chicken (not throwing out the bits and pieces that are less attractive) and is in the long-run better nutritionally. Those unattractive bits (organ meats, skin, bone marrow) all carry important nutrients that are missed in the American diet of boneless, skinless, chicken breasts.

  • Chris,

    Thanks for the comment. Someone did point me to the Reason critique, and I had pretty much the same reaction to it as you. They postured themselves as if Jamie were some crank they were taking down, and then proceeded to grant all of his major premises.

    I too was disappointed by the chicken nugget demonstration. I thought, like you, that it was more than a bit misleading. Did you catch that in his intro to it he admitted that chicken nuggets are not actually made like that in America? Aside from that, though, it still ended up having pedagogical value in its demonstration that American kids have been so conditioned to like processed foods that they will choose them even when they have been shown that they are “yucky.”

    More effective, obviously, was the playground demonstration with the parents present when he dumped an entire week's worth of the food presently being served their kids out on a bit tarp. The dramatic climax though was the dump truck load of actual fat representing the fat those kids consumed in a year. He won the hearts and minds of the parents, and you and I know from experience that in school district battles, that's everything.

    My favorite part of the second episode, though, had to be the cooking lesson with young Nick. This brought tears to my eyes because it brought back everything I loved about my years as a teacher, especially finding that one kid in whom you can ignite a spark and then setting him/her on fire.

    Almost makes me want to learn to cook.

  • JD

    I had a hotdog for lunch today. With each bite all I could think of was that chicken scene. Absolutely gross. My wife and I are food snobs and she constantly mocks me for eating these, constantly remarking “nothing good goes into a hotdog.” She's right…but they're so addicting.

    Personally, I would love it if it could also force Americans to think about other kinds of ready-made foods we eat that aren't really good for us: hamburger helper, boxed mac 'n cheese, cheese wiz, velveeta anything, doritos, fruit loops, etc. I'd also love it if it raised our standards of what to expect from restaurants. To me it's not just about learning to recognize good food; it's also about not being taken advantage of.

    Thinking of the cheese bit above reminds me of a story from my childhood. My mom brought me up cooking the above-mentioned foods and my grandmother (dad's mom)–a polish immigrant who always cooked from scratch–deeply resented her for it. For grandma this decision wasn't just an indictment against mom because she was old-fashioned; it was because grandma felt mom was irresponsible for feeding us sh!t every single day. I remember once, for the first time, grandma made us her home-made mac 'n cheese from scratch. My brother and I hated it because it wasn't what we were used to. It made her so pissed that we'd choose the boxed stuff over hers. It disturbed her that we'd come to believe boxed was better and couldn't recognize good, quality food, much less appreciate it.

    Anyways, these days I've become such a stickler about decently prepared food that I generally don't like eating out unless I'm convinced it's going to be done right. I cook more, but I'm much more content (and spend less). So many restaurants cut corners: using frozen chicken, frozen pre-cooked soups, etc. And once you learn to taste the difference, it's really bothersome. It's a shame. Utter shame.

  • There are some good hot dogs, but you have to be very picky.

    I'm sure your story is very typical, JD. We have conditioned a whole generation that processed is better tasting. It's taken a long time for me to learn to like fresh, “real” foods, and I'm still not out of the woods. It's helped that Karyn has started doing nearly all our shopping for meat and vegetables from local farmers (or our own garden in season), and nearly everything else from Trader Joe's. The next step would be for me to learn to cook. I think that's one of the keys that Oliver brings to the education process. Couples or families who learn to enjoy cooking together will be more likely to be open to the extra time and care it takes to prepare meals from scratch.

  • jeanycat1

    Since Pizzas- seems so big to the students, why not a healthy pizza? Whole wheat crust, lite cheeses, and fresh veggies?:

  • jeanycat1

    Since pizza is sooo big with the kids, why not a healthy ptzza. Wholewheat crust, lite cheeses, and fresh vegetables?

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