Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

Last night I caught the premier of Jamie Oliver’s new show, “Food Revolution”.  Here’s the basic premise: America is unhealthy and overweight, and our generation of children is the first generation projected to live fewer years than their parents.  Enter: Jamie Oliver, determined to help America see the light and reform our food ways.  Looking purely at statistics, he chose Huntington, WV, as a location for his food reform—statistically, this town is the most overweight in the nation (the most overweight nation in the world—so presumably Huntington is the most overweight town in the world).  He notes that over 50% of the adult population of Huntington is overweight or obese.  That is a scary thought!

So, he’s arrived, deadset on teaching citizens how to make healthy foods.  He opens a community kitchen in a downtown area with the goal of it becoming a center for nutritional and culinary education.  While he’s done similar shows successfully in England, his home, he is met with extreme resistance by the community.  Frankly, I think he was banking too much on his celebrity status in thinking that the community would let him in.  Essentially, he’s an outsider who’s come to shake his finger at how naughty we’ve all been.  While he certainly seems sincere in his mission, stating that he just cares so much about America’s health and future, it’s hard for us Americans to appreciate what he has to offer when his actions make us feel like disciplined children in front of an angry parent.  For that reason, I find the show a little difficult to watch, and because I empathize with these people in WV who feel so intruded upon.

Aside from that discomfort—and regret for him that he didn’t seem to have a clue that people would not receive him as an “insider”—the show last night was interesting to watch, at least the first hour (I didn’t watch hour 2).   The main focus was his efforts in an elementary school cafeteria.  The images were very familiar to me, as I spend my days as a third grade teacher in a public school.  He basically discovered that in this school, there is a fully-equipped kitchen (better than many restaurants), a staff of skilled cooks, and a guaranteed customer base.  But, the school cafeteria serves almost exclusively frozen, processed foods (note that all of these things are true around here, as well, from what I’ve observed).

Some particularly frightening highlights from the show:

  • He went into a kindergarten or first grade room and asked them to identify fresh vegetables.  The children did not seem to even successfully identify a tomato (forget things like cauliflower and eggplant).  It seems unbelieveable to me the children are that clueless, and that their cluelessness was not aided by some magic of television such as creative editing…
  • The school admitted to no alarm (in clips that were shown) that students were eating pizza for breakfast (“breakfast pizza”).  Jamie makes a great point here—no matter how “healthy” the pizza is, “pizza is a great breakfast food” is not a healthy message to send to kids.
  • When examining the ingredient list of items such as chicken nuggets and “teriyaki dippers”, school cooks denied that the paragraph-long list of ingredients should be a cause for concern.
  • He took a handful of kids (mixed elementary ages) to his community kitchen and cut a raw, whole chicken.  They thought the raw chicken was gross but were able to follow him on the idea that breasts, legs, and wings were good cuts that people like to buy and eat.  Then, they looked at the remains and they really thought that was gross!  But, when he took that carcass, chopped it, food processed it, added crap to it, breaded it, and then threw it in a fry-pan—all in front of their eyes—and then offered it to them as a chicken nugget, they were so eager to eat it!  Scary!

You can watch the episodes online at abc.com.  The first one is particularly worth checking out.

So, here’s the part that I think is relevant to the work here at Off The Vine Market.  In the interest of speed and convenience, it seems that the school cafeteria (and home cooks) rely on processed foods with many additives.  But, to manufacture and sell these products, they must be affordable.  So, in addition to paying for the cost of food, consumers have to pay for transport of the food (presumably it’s not manufactured close to every consumer), packaging, and preparation.  My guess is then that this increase in extra costs is directly related to the decrease in wages for farmers and the growth in agribusiness, which can produce more product, more cheaply.

So then my question becomes this: Can the movement for healthier, non-processed foods move forward without also aligning itself with the movement for fresh, local, and in-season foods?

I don’t think that it can.  So, independent of who Jamie Oliver is and the resistance he’s met…  plus one point in the game of life for getting this issue out there.

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