Thanks to Hulu and a few sleepless nights due to jet lag, I’m finally caught up on all six episodes of Food Revolution.
In the series, celebrity British chef Jamie Oliver goes to Huntington, WV—noted in 2008 by the Centers for Disease Control as one of the unhealthiest and most obese cities in America—to reform the town’s school lunch program and teach it some healthy cooking.
Jamie won over Huntington’s hearts and minds. Those he didn’t charm with his personality and passion were persuaded by his arguments for health and community. Any remaining naysayers seemed to be swept away by his authenticity and generous spread of love and good cheer.
But was his food revolution a success? What can we learn from Jamie’s attempt to change a town’s eating habits? Here are some of my thoughts:
1. Let’s start with the kids
Jamie’s move to change targets kids’ food at school and at home; he motivates parents and other adults as he taps into our irresistible urge to do the right thing for our kids—because we love them and because they are the future.
And also because the kids actually are more open to change. It seems that in Huntington, too, kids were more receptive to Jamie’s ideas for change than the grown-ups were, and many were eager for the empowerment the ability to cook could give.
2. Placing kids’ interests first doesn’t mean letting kids rule
In our child-centric society we sometimes forget that making kids’ interests the priority doesn’t mean “kids rule”. Early in Food Revolution, kids got to chose between Jamie’s cooked-from-scratch meal and highly processed pizza and French fries, and between chocolate and strawberry milk (”more sugar than soda pop”) and plain milk.
Guess what they chose.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe in authoritarian parenting or schooling, but I do think we have the duty and authority to lead kids to good choices.
It would be very easy for most kids to sleep in every single day, skip classes, rot in front of a TV or video game and not brush their teeth. We don’t give them those options.
So why do we buy into adding sugar to everything in order to please our kids? Of course meals with more sugar, fat and salt will be better liked by kids—it’s human nature. It’s hard—but very possible—to retrain kids’ taste buds with wholesome from-scratch cooking. But not if we’re competing against sugar, fat and salt.
We should give kids autonomy over their food choices—provided all options are acceptable ones. I wouldn’t argue with a kids’ preference for peas over broccoli (or for studying French rather than Italian for that matter). But the option of eating junk rather than healthy food shouldn’t be available in our homes or our schools, just like the option of skipping math doesn’t exist. We’re the grown-ups; it’s our duty to set some boundaries.
There’s a lot to undo here. Under the pretext of “kids will eat more of the good stuff” sugar, color and shapes have been added to food, making our kids food something completely removed from its natural state, and very unhealthy. Just last week the American Beverage Association senior vice president for science policy, Dr. Maureen Storey said to NPR about soda (“90 percent water”): “...Children who have been exercising may not drink enough water to get back to the hydration point that they need to be at. So with a little bit of flavoring and a little bit of sweetness, they will drink enough then to get back to where they need to be.”
Yes, kids will drink more water and milk if it’s loaded with sugar, and will eat more potatoes if they’re deep fried.
They’ll also sleep more if we give them sleeping pills.
But the ends don’t necessarily justify the means. Given time, good alternatives and less competition and brainwashing from junk and fast food, kids will eat real food, especially when they’re hungry.
3. It’s about money
It’s sad but true: better food costs more, and Jamie’s Food Revolution gives us a glimpse of how critical funding is to changing the food landscape. Cheap, processed food costs so much less than healthy food that it’s irresistible to budget-blasted schools; despite good intentions, it’s the cheap stuff that fills the freezers in school kitchens because price matters.
4. Food culture at an all time low
Just when gourmet food, fine dining and the food-as-entertainment trend hit new highs (especially in relatively well-off communities), Jamie shows us that, for many people, the understanding and experience of food has hit a hard-to-believe low. The elementary school in the show has no cutlery knifes (lunch is usually eaten with no cutlery), and the kids can’t recognize a potato or a tomato (we’re not talking leeks and rutabaga here—basic stuff).
5. “Rubbish guidelines”
That’s what Jamie calls the USDA nutrition rules under which a warmed-up highly processed chicken nuggets and French fries meal passes as a nutritious one, yet his cooked from scratch meal, with plenty of grain, vegetables and fresh meat doesn’t.
Our school lunch program, designed long ago during lean times, needs serious revision. It specifies a lower-calorie limit, but not an upper one. It emphasizes protein, vitamins and calories, regardless of their—usually highly processed and artificial—source. It doesn’t promote fruits and vegetables. And it usually supplies too many calories, fat and salt.
6. Can home cooking cure a town?
No. But it’s a good start. Jamie’s Food Revolution focuses on bringing back fresh from-scratch food to schools, and providing a kitchen where anyone could learn how to cook.
In many ways Jamie is selling the most attractive aspects of what needs to be done to improve our nutrition and health: bring back the pleasures of a food culture, and its connection to the land, our food makers, our health and our communities. The goal is romantic and gratifying, and achievable once you get over the difficulty of change.
But there’s another difficult reality to confront: we need to eat less.
Twelve-year-old Justin Edwards, featured in the show, weighs 318 pounds; his problems won’t be over once hamburgers are made from scratch.
The show doesn’t address the constant snacking and continuous sipping of high-calorie snacks and drinks, so typical of our times. Nor does it say a word about vending machines in schools and the a-la-carte foods sold in the cafeteria, which compete with the school lunch.
Jamie doesn’t address eating less; he concentrates on eating different.
7. More an evolution than a revolution
Just as we came to this sorry state of obesity and unhealthy eating slowly and gradually, there’s no quick fix that can undo the damage instantly. There’s no evil dictator to topple, and no oppressed public waiting to be freed from the grasp of fast-food. Most of us are comfortably stuck in our ways and resistant to change.
Jamie sows seeds in Huntington, and then goes back home. When he comes back to check on things three months later, he finds weeds have taken over, threatening his food revolution seedlings. The school freezer is full of processed food, which will be served on “processed food Fridays,” chocolate milk is back, and parents are sending paper bag lunches from home that contain an astounding array of candy and chips to compete with the from-scratch lunch the dedicated staff fought for and worked so hard to produce.
“This ain’t a happy ending,” says Jamie.
No, Jamie, it’s just the beginning. And it may not be a “revolution” that happens. I’d be perfectly happy with an “evolution” in thinking and actions.
Actually, I much prefer the term “movement” to the term “revolution” when it comes to our struggle for healthier food and less obesity. Things are moving. We may even be close to a tipping point. Last week the White House task force on childhood obesity presented to the President its recommendations and a more realistic goal: reverse obesity within a generation.
Jamie Oliver’s most significant contribution was to package some important ideas in an entertaining reality show. Whether most of what we saw was in fact reality or show, he certainly inspired more conversations and thinking around how we eat. I applaud Jamie for using his tremendous popularity and celebrity to promote this worthy cause, and for presenting a complex and we-don’t-want-to-hear-about-it subject is such an engaging way.
And I do think that talking about a revolution can start one.
What did you think of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution?
Related post: Jamie Oliver's wish: Teach every child about food
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