On March 26, British chef Jamie Oliver premiered his reality TV show “Food Revolution” in which he visits Huntington, W.Va. The impassioned chef, TV personality and best-selling author is determined to take on the high statistics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes in the US, where the nation’s children are the first generation not expected to live as long as their parents. The show pits Oliver against an entrenched USDA-regulated school lunch mentality that has labeled french fries as vegetables and ketchup as a fruit. His approach is to address healthy eating community wide.
” We’re setting up a community cooking center and we’re working with the lovely local lunch ladies to put fresh food on school menus,” says Oliver.
The community however, does not seem to be interested in his help. The chef launched his revolutionary assault by visiting the local radio station to be interviewed and explain the project. He was panned by local DJ Rod Willis who started the discussion by stating, “We don’t want to sit around and eat lettuce all day.” The combative discussion ended with the chef leaving dejected and the DJ summarizing the town’s position. “I really take issue with a guy coming into town and telling us how to run our lives.”
The employees of the school system were quickly wishing he had never come to town. The show’s star villains are the “lovely local lunch ladies” as he calls them who ended up looking so bad that the national School Nutrition Association issued a press release in their defense (See press release here).
While the show is built around creating drama, there are some surprising demonstrations. In one “tried and true” demonstration the chef attempts to show a group of school children how processed chicken nuggets are made in order to show them how bad they really are. As he goes through the process making a pink pasty gruel out of leftover chicken parts, he finishes the process, fries them up and asks, “Now who would still want to eat that?” Surprisingly all the kids raised their hands.
In another poignant demonstration Jamie brings a basket of fresh vegetables into a classroom to have kids identify them. Holding up tomatoes he asks, “What’s this?” One student guesses potatoes. Cauliflower? Nope. Potatoes? Nope. The children were unable to identify any of them. They were able to immediately identify chicken nuggets, pizza, burgers and french fries.
Producers of the program selected Huntington, W.Va because it was recently designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the unhealthiest area in the United States. But it also serves as a good snapshot of a typical community. The food that is served in the school system is familiar to any parent who has visited their child’s school at lunchtime. Too many starches and highly processed foods like chicken nuggets and pizza are typical everywhere. So, while the show takes a sensational approach it does highlight a very real issue.
This issue has become a source of discussion in Clarke County recently. School Superintendent Michael Murphy convinced the school board to explore the option of outsourcing food services in our county. Our system has suffered from perennial losses and very few students elect to eat school provided meals. As the school examines this issue perhaps the increased awareness created by shows like “Food Revolution” will spur a new approach to what we feed our students and how we train them to eat throughout their lives.
The show airs on Fridays at 9PM on ABC. You can also see full episodes online here.