Monday, March 22, 2010

Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution is inspiring and maddening all at once

Jaime Oliver took on the British school food system, and won. He managed to get British schools serving healthier, fresher meals country-wide, and I'm sure the health of school children in the UK is better for it. However, it's telling that all of Oliver's efforts were scrupulously documented for hit TV series. On one hand, Oliver is the ultimate modern idealist: a David of nutrition against the Goliath agro-industrial food industry. On the other, he's the ultimate modern cynic: a natural performer who wants to create big social change, as long as the camera gets all of his best angles (in a scene at the end of yesterday's show, Oliver cries crocodile tears over the people of Huntington not understanding how much he cares. This Washington Post article sums it up: "[Oliver is] afflicted with the kind of warm-hearted caring that requires the constant presence of a TV crew."). If Oliver's new effort to put healthier food in US schools is successful, the latter won't seem so important. But if all that Oliver gets out of this is a season of good TV, I'll wonder whether there wasn't a better way to create change.

To be sure, the challenge Oliver is tackling in his new series, Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution, is a real one. Many children get a large portion of their day's calories from school food, and that school food is terrible. It's unhealthy, and most students will tell you it's not very tasty, either. There's fat, there's sugar, there's refined flour, and much of it is mandated to be there by the USDA regulations. But by choosing Huntington, WV, a town in the heart of Appalachia, to make his point, Oliver has put something else on display. And he knows it. Far too much of the show's pseudo premiere (Friday's two-hour premiere will have this show as its first hour) focused on the "oooh, looky, they're fat and eat gross things" otherization of the problem. Yes, the school can serve better foods, the families can cook better foods, and the kids can make better choices, but how the food gets to this town and onto the schoolchildren's trays is just as much, and probably more, of the problem. Oliver himself runs into this, when he tries to cook a healthy meal of chicken and rice for the kids, only to find out that his dish doesn't meet the USDA requirement of two bread products. Note that the requirements for school lunch nutrition are brought to you by the US Department of Agriculture, not the US Department of health, nutrition, or longevity. Looking at a comparison of food subsidies versus nutritional recommendations will tell you all you need to know about why it's so hard for so many people to get a nutritionally rich meal.

Oliver doesn't waste much time wondering why people in Huntington eat the way they do, or what he can do collaboratively to find a better way. He's more interested with coming in and doing things his way, Supernanny style. Huntington needs a timeout. I don't mean to be overly harsh, because I truly think we do need change in the way we eat as a country, and especially the way our children eat. I'm just not sure the best way to enact that change is by first shaming people about the yuckiness of all the additives and grease in their food. Oliver thinks everything should be cooked from scratch, and turns his nose up at the idea of mashed potatoes made from "potato pearls" instead of raw tubers. But, honestly, dried potatoes do seem a lot more practical when you have 450 kids to feed. If you have a better way, fine, but it's not like the idea of using food shortcuts is insane. There are a lot of swaps that could be made within the confines of the manufactured food setting--brown rice for white, whole grain bread and pizza crust for not, mushroom pizza instead of pepperoni, unflavored milk...the list goes on, and these might be more practical for most schools than peeling carrots every morning. I'm not saying it's better, just that there's a reason the cafeteria serves food from a freezer.

Oliver makes the un-astute comment that he's "been to the townships of South Africa, and they're eating better than the kids are eating here." But he neglects the reason why. Convenience is a normal good, meaning as we get richer, we are willing to purchase convenience, because it gives us more time. I'm not sure South Africa is the best example, because it is a developed country with townships not so different from our own, but if I look at the food eaten in Zambian villages, I can tell you a lot of it is prepared from scratch by hand, just the way Oliver wants. Unfortunately, it also takes the women of the village all day to do the labor involved in producing that food. Many of them grow their vegetables in their own gardens, use maize left over from their cash crop, grind maize flour by hand, and then painstakingly stir it into a thick stew over an open flame. As is so often the case, the burden of eating well falls to women.

Oliver himself makes this point, although unintentionally, when he works with a family that eats fried and processed food at every meal. In a moving scene where he shows the mother of the family all the tan-colored food she's feeding her kids, and tells her it's killing them, she begins to cry. He reassures her by saying, "Do you know how many women all around the world are doing exactly this?" The message is clear: as a woman who should be cooking food from scratch, she's letting her kids down. As a woman, she should do better. For moms who work and cannot afford household help, cooking every meal from scratch is intensely burdensome. Moreover, purchasing fresh ingredients usually results in fewer calories per dollar than purchasing processed food. I hope future episodes will involve Oliver having to fit his food paradigm into the family's money and time budget. I'd also like to see which stores in Huntington he has to go to in order to purchase the ingredients he uses (they've been magically appearing so far), to see if they don't happen to be more expensive and less convenient than the majority of food outlets in town. His lovely looking "from-scratch" meals would look even more appealing to me if he could show us how to make a few simple budget-neutral tweaks to the shopping list, and still have dinner on the table in 30 minutes.

The show had some very profound moments, and I believe it has great potential. When Oliver stands by the garbage can and watches kids throw their vegetables, apples, and other fresh food into the trash it's a dramatic rebuke of what we're programming our kids to like. Kids don't naturally dislike vegetables and fruit, but many learn to from an early age. (People do naturally like fatty and sweet foods, since we're biologically programmed to seek calorie-dense sustenance, a fact Oliver would prefer to ignore.) I also thought they showed some of Oliver's arrogance coming into the situation in a nice way, by having him confronted by a radio DJ and cafeteria cook who'll have none of the fairy dust he's trying to serve up. Oliver genuinely expected people to think the food they were eating was gross and to be hungry for change in the form of vegetables, and is honestly shocked to find out that the allegiance to current ways runs a bit deeper than that. (These moments of prejudice confrontation caused Ken Tucker to favorably review the show.) As for the underlying challenge, for Oliver to replace the kids' meals with healthy food while meeting the USDA regulations, the school's budget, and the kids' tastes, we'll have to wait until Friday to see the outcome. I hope the show does justice to the complexities of overhauling a school's lunch system, but I'll be cheering along with everyone else if Oliver manages to pull it off.

1 comment:

  1. I agree, Jamie can be a little ridiculous. However, the first I had heard of him was this NYTimes article, and I was very impressed with his success. He seems like the consummate entrepreneur, and he leverages the hell out of the assets he has. Some of the "food" they are eating out in Huntington makes my stomach turn without any reference to bodies. I suppose taste is subjective, but Hillbilly Hot Dogs is pushing it.


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