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TV Review: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

April 2, 2010

By Monsieur Anton

Reality television has a well founded reputation for being exploitative.  It is often the fast food of our culture, tasty and easy to consume, but with little to no substance and never really good for you.  Jamie Oliver‘s Food Revolution is at least a step toward making the programming more relevant.  Oliver would lead you to believe that this show has a mission, and that mission is a revolution, and it is, in as much as a television show about food can be.

Oliver has traveled all the way from his native England to the unhealthiest city in the United States, Huntington, West Virginia, to teach its residents how to eat properly.  In doing so, it his hope that the alarming obesity levels of Huntington’s populace will go down, and with it the many associated health risks such as diabetes and heart disease.  He bases most of his efforts on the children of Huntington, because as we all know, the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way!  I guess it’s too late for the hefty adults.  How about the concept of parents and teachers as role models?  Should Oliver ignore people just because they’ve attained puberty?

In fact, Oliver likely focuses his attention on the youth because the grown ups are largely too entrenched in their ways, like the radio host who mockingly retorts to Jamie, “what do you expect us to do, just eat lettuce?”  What Oliver would like them to do is to decrease the consumption of processed food, and dine on meals made from fresh ingredients, not an unreasonable task given the nutritional and culinary benefits.

To accomplish this goal, Oliver uses a three-pronged strategy.  He attempts to revamp the grade school lunch programs, focus on one family as an example, and set up a kitchen in Huntington to demonstrate sensible nutritional cooking.

The kitchen so far takes up the least screen time, probably because it is the most mundane.  As a focal point for the community, it is a valuable asset.  As television, it is uneventful.  It is more useful to pay more attention to the scenes that will tug on our collective heart-strings, and what could be more moving than an obese youngster facing impending diabetes.  Some of the most touching scenes are when Oliver attempts to get the morbidly obese Edwards family which strikes a stunning resemblance to Eddie Murphy’s Crump family, to change their eating ways.  Once the parents see that their food habits are leading their young son down the road to diabetes, well what parent wants to see their child sick?  Will this be the motivation needed to force them to eat more healthy.  Stay tuned.

The crux of the show’s focus, and Oliver’s as well is on the city’s school lunch program.  Oliver asserts that we are raising a generation of fat kids through the institution that is supposed to be looking out for them, our schools.  To this end  Oliver goes to work in a grade school attempting to upgrade the nutritional, and flavor aspect of the food served to its students.  Upon arrival, Oliver is appalled at the food being served to the young lads, with some glaring examples being chocolate milk, chicken nuggets and god forbid pizza for breakfast.  Now any fool knows that you shouldn’t eat pizza for breakfast until you’re old enough to use it as a hangover cure after an evening out during your college days, unless it’s one of these pizzas.

Oliver runs into some not unexpected obstacles in his efforts to feed proper food to the kids.  There are the skeptical uncooperative “lunch ladies,” the school administration, and most of all the kids who have been brought up to expect pizza and processed food in the cafeteria.  The hurdles Oliver faces are further complicated by the  bureaucracy of the school lunch program that among other things places certain restrictions on a bogus nutritional system, and most of all cost.  Here is where I’m going to get political on you, and ruffle some feathers along the way, something Oliver seems hesitant to do in this instance.

As a nation we have just gone through a drawn out, heated and divisive health care debate.  Sadly, the school lunch program was not a part of the health care bill that passed.  Michelle Obama has laudably made childhood obesity her signature issue, but even with her passion she didn’t get her husband to address the problem in the health care bill.  Well meaning people like Jamie Oliver can try all they want  to emphasize better food for children, but the reality is that better food costs more money.  As a nation we have to place a value on the health of our children, and in doing so their future health as adults.  Can you really put a price tag on the well being of your boys and girls?  In my mind this is not a financial issue, it is a moral one.  Nutritional meals in our schools come at a price, one that we cannot afford to not pay.

Jamie Oliver who has been dubbed “The Naked Chef” in his native Great Britain clearly has his heart in the right place.  He has fought this fight before in his home country, and has had some positive results, but can he be successful on this side of the pond?

One thing Oliver needs to be careful of is to not be too preachy.  It is clear that cares deeply about the subject, and who can blame him?  But like the cranky radio host we spoke of, none of us like to be preached to, especially from a foreigner.  Not only that, but it doesn’t make for good TV.  Americans don’t like to be told what to do.  The good news is that we have shown a proclivity to be brain washed by the boob tube.  If the mild mannered Brit can entertain us while he informs us, he may have a fighting chance.  In the meantime what we have is a rare instance of a reality show that is not exploitative, and has its heart in the right place, and that is to be applauded.

You can read more about Jamie Oliver’s attempts to improve nutrition in American schools and the nation as a whole at his website.  While there you can also sign his online petition stressing the need for better nutritional standards in our nation’s schools.

Chef Gusteau says:  I totally agree with the mission, or at least the intended mission, of this concept show.  I also understand that in a selfish way, this is great publicity for Oliver to add to his culinary empire.  Why so cynical Gusteau?  If you really wanted to succeed in this pursuit, here are some critical points that should have been noted:

  • Partner with a knowledgeable and influential chef WITHIN the United States you Donkey!  Do you really think you won’t experience a little backlash when you come from overseas and begin telling people in West Virginia how unhealthy, lazy and obese they are?  Come on, you could have the cure for cancer, and if you don’t approach it the right way, you blow the whole mission!  Doesn’t he understand that this is NOT a new topic in the US?  Many chefs and nutritionists are fighting this same battle and have been for some time.  Coming here with a “Now here is how you do it” attitude isn’t helping anyone.
  • Understand the local politics and economy.  Hate to say it, Jamie, but this is as much a political/economic issue as it is a health one.  Not to say that this is justified…it’s just the way it is right now.  Schools are under very serious budgetary constraints.  Sure, fresh foods and vegetables would be great, but they tend to cost more.  Additionally, you need more skilled cooks in the kitchen to work with raw foods.  Anyone can grab processed foods, toss them in the microwave and get them to the kids…these types of workers are of a much lower cost than experienced cooks that need to clean and cook raw foods for kids.  Whether or not fresh, healthy foods are better for the kids is not the main issue.  School budgets don’t have room for more experienced staff or better ingredients.  This is a fact right now…once again, I don’t disagree with the objectives; I just understand that it takes more than Jamie is portraying.
  • Although focusing on school lunch programs is important, I believe that the bigger issue might be the food provided in children’s homes.  Think about it…kids like the cheap pizza and chicken fingers at school, so it makes sense for the school to serve these foods.  If the kids instead preferred chicken, salmon, brown rice and healthy soups, then schools would eventually have to alter their menus to meet this demand.  The question is, do kids eat like this at home?  Mine do, and it isn’t that difficult.  Does it take a little more time and money preparing these foods for your children?  Absolutely, but isn’t this worth it?  So a bigger, more pointed mission would be educating parents in how to prepare better foods at home in an economical fashion (both time and money).  Jamie does spend some time on this, but it needed even more emphasis.  Gusteau sounds crazy?  Not really…I actually offer cooking classes at my sons’ school for parents, teachers and their kids, to prepare better foods at home.  I may not have the global reach as Oliver, but I wonder if my success percentage might be slightly higher…

To the very least, Jamie Oliver is bringing more attention to this important topic.  But the solution will come from within the US, and from US families/parents.  We need to want to change, and practice the proper habits at home first, and then drive the forces at work (schools/government) to meet this new demand.  The biggest challenge is no one believes that we want to change.  Sound crazy?  Not really…go grocery shopping or to farmers markets and look at the crowds…then watch the lines outside a McDonalds, Chipotle, Taco Bell, etc.  In one fist we pound the tables demanding change, and in the other we have a handful of greasy fries.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. pam permalink
    April 6, 2010 7:50 pm

    the commenter using italics clearly never bothered to read up what happened when he did this in Britain. You sound just as ccondescending as you accuse him of being. The same issues where faced, with cost, time, skill etc… they were all tackled. Getting people to see it on tv did what a hundred activists could not achieve in britain in a decade. This is a catalyst for action that will be taken up by the people themselves. Look at what they team of kids he works with are doing already.

    • April 8, 2010 9:30 am

      Hi Pam,
      Thanks for tuning in and for the comment. My thoughts were not based on what happened in Britain…different story, culture and economy than here. My point was that although his message is a great one, two critical things need to happen to make the message stick. One, he needs to partner with someone in the US…for both added credibility and traction as well as for a better understanding of US politics and workforce dynamics. Two, change comes from within the family and then into the schools (who hopefully will feel the pressure to change…and thus force changes in government policies for school food, nutrition and budgets). I do agree with you, Pam, that this can act as a catalyst for action here…hopefully parents can carry that torch. Hopefully you also noticed my comment that regardless of all the good ideas and intentions, we need to walk the talk…no more fast food and frozen junk for meals! Given the size of those industries, I can’t blame anyone or the government for believing that perhaps Americans don’t really care about their childrens’ health.

      On a final note…I am also the VP/founder of a food company created to provide healthier foods to schools and hospitals…the products should be released and accepted by the end of the year…hopefully you’ll be proud of my work…0 Trans Fat, 1g SatFat, 9 g protein, and low sodium…it’s a start! My biggest challenges were not in creating healthy foods…it was tough getting the cafeteria workers willing to do more than defrost and serve; also, I found it very difficult to financially compete against established food companies that were using “fake” foods (processed meats, cheeses, flavorings,etc) and providing their foods to schools for insanely cheap amounts. Real food does cost much more! So, given my albeit limited experience in this industry, I have learned that it takes more than what Jamie Oliver is doing and how he is doing it…he’s on the right track, but the issues and challenges are complex, and it’s going to take a lot more than people nodding their heads with “A-ha’s”. I don’t plan on giving up…I’m still producing the best food I can, and cooking healthy meals for my family and friends. I also believe in the idea of “think globally, act locally.”

      Thanks again, Pam…and please keep tuning in.
      Chef Gusteau

  2. Daria permalink
    April 23, 2010 10:39 pm

    I agree with you. I worked for a private school. We did not have a commercial kitchen onsite to prepare food so we were ordering in meals from Taco Bell, Chick fil A, Sonic, Subway, Panda Express and Mr. Gattis Pizza. Then the school said they wanted healthier food so they gave a contract to a Caterer who said he would prepare the food at his restaurant and then bring it over. I was expecting frozen vegetables, fresh fruit, and things like hamburgers or mashed potatoes made from scratch. Instead, behind the scenes, I saw canned vegetables and fruits (except bananas and apples), mashed potatoes made from a box, preformed processed hamburger patties, ect. He was shopping at Sam’s and just reheating the food. The parents would come up to me and say “Isn’t this wonderful! Home cooked food for our kids”. I would just look at them because I was forbidden by the school to say anything negative about the new program. The price the parents were paying went up and they weren’t getting any healthier food for their kids. I was supposed to be the head of the lunch program and I wasn’t allowed any say in what was prepared, how it was prepared, and when the school renewed the contract, I quit. The caterer wanted to pay me $8 an hour and I started a book keeping business for $45 an hour.

    I had a friend who was on WIC , and getting food stamps. she didn’t have a car so I would take her to the store with me. She would spend $20 buying frozen pizzas and a Pepperidge farm frozen cake. When I tried to show her that for the same $20 I could buy steak, fixings for a salad, a bag of frozen vegs, and a bag of potatoes (I was feeding 4 children and 2 adults, she was feeding 3 children and 1 adult) she said she didn’t like to cook and her way was easier. She would get powdered milk from the food bank. I got her to give it to me instead of throwing it away, but do you think that I could get her to consider using it in making pancake batter or other things from scratch if you don’t like the taste to drink it as a liguid? think you can guess the answer. Buying Eggos was easier.

    • May 1, 2010 11:56 am

      Daria,
      Thanks for the comments and tuning in. Very compelling story you share with us, and I am afraid it is probably not atypical of what is happening behind the scenes. I am also pleased about your book keeping business…congrats!

      Also, the story of your friend is all too common. It has become much too easy to throw something in the microwave and call it a meal. Jamie Oliver has shown that it is possible to cook at home, but it does take work…but well worth it in my opinion!

      PS-I am guilty of the occasional box of eggos for my boys…they like it, it’s easy, and once in a while a fun treat…everything in moderation!

  3. August 30, 2010 10:33 am

    I find this very interesting. I wish there was some way to let him know about this cooking contest I am organizing with my marketing firm because we would love to have him! It’s called the Aetna Healthy Food Fight. The contest occurs in multiple locations, but one of the locations is at the RIPE! Food & Garden Festival in Cleveland. We are looking for any cooks out there to submit healthy food recipes online; the deadline is September 8th. The top 48 healthiest recipes will move on to the competition. The celebrity guests throughout the contest will be Bobby Flay, Sunny Anderson, Sara Moulton, and Cat Cora. Please check out this website for more information, http://www.healthyfoodfight.com

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