Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

Okay, first, this is a reconstituted post. I had >1,000 words written (without saving) when Microsoft Vista decided to reboot. Why? I don’t know. But it didn’t autosave what I’d written, nor could I recover anything via the temp folders. So this is a rambling second attempt.

I’m a fan of food programs on television. In fact, Food Network’s programs are the only American-produced reality television that I enjoy. I’m somewhat familiar with Jamie Oliver and his passion for healthy, beautiful food, athough I must admit, he’s not my favorite British TV chef – no, that would be Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose River Cottage series I’ve enjoyed. But I admire his genuine enthusiasm and appreciation for good, fresh food made locally and from healthy ingredients.

While in London, I caught an episode of Jamie’s road trip across America, in which he basically hops into an RV and travels around, trying different foods and meeting the “average” American. I’m not entirely clear on the premise or purpose of the series, or how many regions/episodes were organized. The episode I saw was Jamie in the American Southeast. His first encounter was with a family that hunted game and grew its own garden vegetables. He enjoyed some gorgeous venison and pickled veg with them, and when he learned that their annual participation in a big regional barbeque contest was being cancelled due to the soaring price of gas (necessary for the large, gas-guzzling trucks and RVs taken to the contest), he offered to fund the trip. Next he met a woman who ran a roadside bbq joint and learned the secret to good, slow-roasted pork bbq. Then on to church and an education in soul food. Mixed in was an evening in a trailer park during which he was shocked to hear the n-word come out of someone’s mouth. And at some point, he had cake and champagne with ladies who lunch in Savannah, Ga. In the final minutes of the episode, he and his motley crew of bbq’ers (plucked from the various people he’d met during the episode) would up at the competition, where they won a runner up prize for a dish.

The world Jamie visited must seem alien to many Britons; certainly it was alien to me in many ways, despite the relative proximity to my own insular America.

The only note that rang false for me was Oliver’s response to the n-word. Racism is hardly a solely American preserve. Anyone who watched the election of Barack Obama should not be surprised to see this. Disappointed, perhaps, but not as gobsmacked as Oliver seemed to be.

As I watched, I wondered about what a Briton watching would think of the people on screen. And I felt defensive. The people seemed like caricatures , extremes of the population. Frankly, the grammar of most of the people on screen made me flinch. Not the accent, mind you, but the incorrect verb tenses, the ain’ts, the prevarication about the meaning (connotation and denotation) of words like “redneck”. The repeated references to god as providing (especially when one character referred to health care and a serious family illness) and praying for answers/help really struck me as bizarre for two reasons: 1) why expect an all-powerful deity to fix your healthcare rather than the government to whom you pay taxes, and 2) belief is powerful and private, not for public consumption. The ladies who lunched and who didn’t talk about politics or church or poverty or recession…they were an outright embarrassment – their shallowness and vapidity.

Am very curious about how the other regions were presented in their episodes, and what non-Americans took away from the different looks.

At the airport, I saw that Jamie Oliver had his very own magazine and the cover implied that its content was focused on his American experience. Was it a one off as part of the tv series, or does Oliver has his own magazine?

Food Revolution

So, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is a series in which Jamie is attempting to bring better nutrition to Huntington, West Virginia, which has the highest rate of death and morbid obesity in America, which is the most obese country in the world. He’s opening a storefront, where he’ll teach people about better nutrition, and working with a family to change their diet, and he’s going to change school lunches.

Sidenote: let me reiterate that I’m not a particular reality TV fan. The few exceptions have been food programming, and a few British reality shows I’ve found courtesy of BBC-America. The reasons for my preference are many and varied, ranging from a privacy fetish (you want to do/show what on TV?) to a simple distaste for the over-produced, melodramatic voice overs and interviews that seem standard with most American reality shows. (Seriously, compare the original What Not to Wear to the American version, and tell me truly which you think is better and also which is less treacly sweet.)

I found that same problem here. While the theme seemed very similar to You Are What You Eat, if on a much larger scale, the out-takes, the voice overs, the interviews seemed overwrought, melodramatic, and full of forced conflict. The editing emphasized the conflict as well. I’m sure it’s much better television if you spend more time on the bureaucratic, defensive lunch lady rather than the one who dug in and helped and seemed to like Jamie and what he was doing.

I’d be interested in knowing a lot more about Huntington, and about the school in which he began. What are the socio-economics of the kids enrolled in that school compared to the county, the state, the region, and the nation?

I was intrigued to see the kids all eating breakfast at school. Despite the fact that the federal government mandates certain standards (hello, No Child Left Behind, you test-driven POC legislation) and provides much of the funding, school administration is state-based, and can vary widely. When I was a kid, back in the dark ages (80s and early 90s), breakfast at school was a relative rarity. The kids who ate the hot breakfast at school were either children of teachers/employees, kids who were dropped off extremely early, or kids who received free or subsidized breakfast and lunch due to their financial situation. Many of the kids who may have qualified for the free/subd breakfast didn’t take advantage of it, because you had to arrive early for it. Fewer than 10% of the school population ate breakfast at school. In contrast, the entire population of the Huntington school appeared to be eating (or wasting) breakfast. How many elementary schools in the US serve a full breakfast to all students, I wonder?

Another contrast was the menu. Locally, the meal usually consisted of milk, eggs, breakfast meat, and/or oatmeal/grits and/or cold cereal. When Jamie walked into the school cafeteria and saw the kids eating “breakfast pizza”, I thought they were eating some sort of flatbread with eggs on it. No, it was regular pizza. And sweetened milk (strawberry or chocolate). I was horrified. It’s one thing to be a hung over college student eating cold pizza for breakfast, but pizza for breakfast every day? For a five, six, seven, eight year old? That is NOT healthy.

And the lunch menu. *sigh* To return to my school days, it consisted of a vegetable, entrée with rice/potato, milk, and sweet (fruit salad, jello or pudding). Except on Fridays, when you might have either a french bread cheese pizza or a chicken-patty sandwich or burger with fries. All for the bargain price of $1. Again, lunch might be subsidized, depending on your family’s financial circumstances, to be reduced or free. And if you had an allowance or a part-time job, you could buy an ice-cream cone, sodapop, or sweet of some kind. When I had money of my own (not often), I tended to buy a soda and muffin for lunch rather than eat the healthy but dull food that was available for the standard lunch. So I have little room to criticize anyone.

Keep in mind, though, that as many as half of all students brought packed lunches from home through at least grade 9 (age 14). (The older you got, the less likely it was that you brought a packed lunch every day.) They might buy a soda or sweet in addition to their packed lunch, but they were eating soup, sandwich, leftovers, etc., brought from home. It didn’t seem as if any of the children in the elementary school on Jamie’s show brought in a packed lunch. All of the children sitting at the lunch tables had the school tray in front of them; none of them had a lunch box. (That is another post entirely – the loss of the lunch box. Seriously, admiring new lunch boxes while back-to-school shopping in August was the best thing, one of the few highlights of adjusting from summer freedom back to school days. Is that a pleasure those kids have never experienced?)

At one point, conflict arose because the lunch ladies only had spoons to distribute, but Jamie’s lunch required a knife and fork. But the children don’t use knives and forks, he was told. Uh, what? The fact that the kids did not get and did not know how to use cutlery was shocking not only to Jamie but to me. At home, we used kid-safe plastic cutlery until we graduated to the regular, everyday stainless steel stuff that the adults used. I can remember plastic compartmentalized trays and disposable plastic sporks and knives in second and third grades (age 7/8), but regular cutlery after that. I can imagine a budgetary problem – what’s the cost of providing disposable plastic sporks vs. the cost of buying and replacing normal utensils, plus having the staff and facilities to wash, dry, sort, distribute and collect them on a daily basis. But that’s a separate issue. The idea that a 5/6/7/8 year old wouldn’t know how to properly (if perhaps not gracefully) use a knife and fork was appalling to me. And that schools should be or are teaching kids to use a knife and fork just blows me away. That is the parents’ job, not the school’s. Yes, schools do teach a lot of socialization skills and life skills, but how to wield a knife and fork properly (rather than eating with your hands and a spoon) should not have to be one of them.

As part of the introduction to nutrition and food recognition, Jamie did two things: he took fresh, unprepared vegetables to a classroom, and he did a demonstration of what chicken nuggets are in his kitchen. Not a single student recognized any of the vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, beans. None of the children knew what they were. Their teacher recognized a teaching opportunity and taught them to recognize different vegetables after that visit, taking the initiative, which pleased Jamie no end. I’m curious if they also learned more than how to recognize the veg, too, but that wasn’t mentioned.

Here is an area where I had an advantage as a kid: I grew up in a family that kept a summer garden. Seeding, weeding, pulling, harvesting, all summer chores. [Have I ever told you about the time Twin picked all Poppop’s not-quite-ripe eggplants because she thought they were beautiful purple balloons? ] Peeling, shelling, seeding, cleaning, being a nuisance in the kitchen as Mommom pickled, jarred, and froze vegetables for storage. I guess the thing that makes me sad here is that even without a summer garden, if your parents are cooking right at home, you’ll still know what those vegetables are. Broccoli on the plate doesn’t look all that different from broccoli in a bunch; same with green beans, Brussels sprouts, and other veg. So the not-so-subtext was that nutrition at home was probably as bad as or worse than what they were getting at school.

And what where they getting at school? Processed meat. Chicken nuggets. Pizza for lunch and breakfast. Sweetened milk to drink. Canned fruit that was seldom eaten. Whole apples that were binned more often than not. The volume of the school’s food waste was ridiculous. It made me sad, too, because those kids’ bodies are dying for good food, healthy food, but the things that ended up in the bin most often were the few healthy items provided, while the processed meat and sugary sauces were consumed quickly.

Oh, the chicken nuggets. Back to those. Jamie showed kids exactly how chicken nuggets were made, grinding up the bits and skin and gristle, adding flour and flavoring. The kids were appalled as they watched. But pat the goop into shape and fry it, and the kids were willing to eat it! Jamie was shocked, and so was I! Because it looks familiar, it’s safe and therefore edible. Ick.

Ultimately, Jamie did well enough at producing nutritious school lunches that he was invited back to try and improve his performance during a second week. His goal? To spread beyond a single school to all the local schools.

The family that he’s working with to change their diet and lifestyle…well, I’ll leave their eating habits alone for fear of being called a huge hypocrite, given my own kitchen habits. But I have to say that the glimpse of their freezer, which held at least 30 frozen pizzas, was ridiculous. Really? That’s what you feed your 4 and 12 year old children? Frozen pizza? Like Gillian McKeith in YAWYE, Jamie showed the family what they ate in a week, and forced them to go for a family check up. Will that make a difference?

Truly, I’m not sure if I’ll watch future episodes. I like the idea of the show, and I think Jamie Oliver’s goals are admirable (if perhaps not quite as altruistic and selfless as he paints in one confessional scene). I would like to see how the family does using the new recipe regime. But the production style puts me off : I don’t care about the conflict with the lunch ladies or the radio guy; I’m not interested in Jamie’s inspirational chat with a pastor. I’m interested in seeing what works, and how/why. If this were a straight documentary, it would be much more my speed.



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13 responses to “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

  1. When we fostered three teenagers, even when we cut out the “weird” food (Thai and Indian) and just had bangers and mash or steak, potatoes, and peas, they wouldn’t eat it. Fresh steak, scratch mashed potatoes and frozen (not canned) peas and beans was too foreign to what they’d grown up with and they didn’t like the taste. It wasn’t processed enough and it wasn’t sweet. It got to the point that they didn’t eat at home at all (and considering their teenage-hood and other issues, we didn’t push it). They never had breakfast and often skipped lunch, so dinner was only meal they ate. They therefore preferred stuff high in starch and super-processed. And the soda…OMG. Caffeinated sugar. Or they drank Gatorade like water and thought it was healthy. When I heard about this show (you’re the third person to tell me about it), I predicted the school’s responses to Oliver’s attempts to change their eating. They just don’t know what fresh tastes like and it doesn’t taste good to them the way it does to us.

    • I feel like a little old lady going on about how things were better back in my youth.
      That kids don’t recognize *what* fresh tastes like makes me very sad.
      I didn’t have high expectations of the show to begin with for a variety of reasons, but the first episodes were much worse than I expected in terms of reaction from kids and parents.

  2. Jamie did a lot to turn around the British school system’s meal plans; I know this is what he hopes to do here as well. I hope he can, but I’m a bit of a pessimist.

    • The difference is size/scale alone seems like a barrier. Okay, everyone is supposed to stick to the USDA standards if they are getting federal money, but how many school districts per county or per state?

  3. Anonymous

    Re: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
    I’m a Food Network junkie — and I agree, it’s one of the better stations in the US for “reality”. I keep meaning to try and catch Jamie’s new show, but I’m a bit hesitant. I admire the intentions, but I like him when he’s in the Food Network format; I loved his last FT show, forget the title, but he cooked straight from his garden.

    • Anonymous

      Re: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
      Crap, “anonymous” is actually me and I hate that I didn’t think to change it.

      • Re: Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
        Hi, Amy.
        I liked the Jamie Oliver show that I saw on Food Network, too. I remember him talking about seasonal foods, and loving root vegetables picked from his own garden. Beautiful carrots.

  4. Anonymous

    Suisan weighs in
    I worked a lot on school nutrition and balancing the cafeteria fund when I was on the school board. Wrote a lengthy commentary on this show and your post over at my blog. Suisan

  5. Anonymous

    But the production style puts me off : I don’t care about the conflict with the lunch ladies or the radio guy;
    That’s one of the things that tends to drive me crazy about American reality-shows, there always seems to be a huge amount of contrived drama, that’s heightened by the dodgy editing. I suspect that the American producers have just followed the same formula.
    Karen Scott

    • Hi, Karen.
      I’m sure the American producers are following the same formula. In fact, one of the producers of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is an executive producer, which explains the nearly identical contrived drama, and Ryan Seacrest, another drama queen.

  6. Food network’s program are for food connoisseur who can watch it on their satellite tv
    and can learn how to prepare those dishes.

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