Monday, April 12, 2010


When I first heard about Jamie Oliver's new reality TV show which attempts to get parents, teachers and school administrators to re-think about the food served in school cafeterias in the US, my first thought was he's wrong guy for the job. How the heck are Americans going react to a Brit telling them the foods their children are being served in schools are unhealthy and making them sick? Then all sorts of other paranoid questions began to nag at me. Why is this show on ABC-TV in prime time? Then seeing that Ryan Seacrest's production company is listed as the producer. Worse, they were going to do this at a school in a West Virginia town that has the highest rate of obesity in the country. I thought, wrong guy for the message, wrong network, wrong executive producer--wrong, wrong, wrong.

And I took that attitude to the first episode. I didn't hate Jamie Oliver--in fact I respect him enormously. He was able to instigate some big changes in a similar program in British schools and that is excellent. But I disliked that town. I disliked those ladies in the school cafeteria. They may have known the kid's names, but what a tough and unyielding bunch of biddies they were. I was turned off by the superintendent in charge of administering those depressing trays of fast food gruel stuffed into the mouths of young kids. About the only thing I could feel any empathy with was Jamie and the school principal, who genuinely seemed to be the only adult in that town who cared about his charges.

But I stuck with it. The very idea that kids get pizza, french fries, and chicken McNuggets for lunch with chocolate milk is appalling to me. How the hell did we fall apart so badly that a school district would permit this junk to be served to our kids? Some people have to seriously explaining to do. Is this the lesson from school tax cuts? Our kids are poisoned at an early age. I'm not a parent. I had no idea this is what kids are eating in cafeterias all over the country. Jamie couldn't get kids in this community to eat a vegetable--they simply tossed it in the garbage. The resistance by the manager of the cafeteria was criminal. When Jamie found out they don't give children a knife and fork with their lunches and then challenged him to provide proof that British school children are given knives and forks, I was convinced that here was a classic example of bureaucracy in its worse form. And how sad it was to watch young kids utterly fail at identifying vegetables of any sort. I can understand not knowing what an eggplant or a cauliflower looks like. But how can one explain their failure to identify a simple potato, tomato or cucumber?

It was very instructive for Jamie's dramatic presentation to the parents of the kids at that school. Parents are ignorant of the problems themselves. Most of them have been taught nothing about good nutrition. Most of them don't cook real meals--everything is about convenience. Get it on the table and make it snappy. This is the terrible lesson and aftermath of microwave ovens, packaged convenience foods and take-out bars, and TV ads that extol the virtues of the Pop Tart as a legitimate substitute for a good breakfast. McDonald's has done such a great job of marketing Chicken McNuggets, that anything small, fried and containing a smidgen of chicken, chicken parts, chicken byproducts, is now referred to as a Chicken McNugget. With bones, fat, skin, gristle, all ground up together, we are now serving our kids, dog and cat food. Shame on all of us.

The good news is those mothers were shocked and seemed very upset once they had the facts in hand. Once the teacher saw her students couldn't identify a single vegetable, she sprung into action, bringing a huge range of fresh vegetables to school for her class to touch and discover for the first time.

One of the TV critics wanted to know why the show's early episodes are not dealing with the purveyors who sell this junk to school districts. Perhaps Jamie and his crew feared their legal wrath. You don't need to have it spelled out. I would urge all school administrations to seriously review the companies they are doing business with. Perhaps it would be better to have someone locally deal with food issues such as quality and ordering of foods that are consumed at schools. Take a closer look at the food pyramid, which the government has created (at great expense of our tax $--not that I have much faith in it, but it is a start) so that kids can eat a good lunch in school instead of junk food. Have food taught in schools. Involve parents more. Revive the home economics class.

I haven't been in school in many, many years. In the 50s and 60s, schools didn't have dispensing machines with candy and soda easily available. Soda was never on the menu of any school I ever attended. And while cafeteria food is at best edible, never inspiring, it is to be preferred over junk food, especially if made with some care and some nutritional goals in mind. The ladies who cook and serve that junk in this school care deeply about these kids. But they are as ignorant as the students, the parents and the school administrators.

Alice Waters should be given some credit for this. When her daughter first started going to school, Alice was very upset at the food her daughter's school served. How could she advocate for that school as the owner of one of the most respected and visible restaurants in America, when they served such bad food to her daughter. Alice swung into motion and has hounded the media for years. Some of the press has presented her misgivings--but they were preaching to the choir. Yet today, Alice inspired Michelle Obama to create the White House roof garden.

The resistance to Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters, and others courageous enough to continue this battle will continue. Money interests, political power, and mistrust, will continue to dog the mission of making sure our kids get the best possible food in schools. So let's hear it for Jamie Oliver, for having the star power, the guts, the ability to make himself look ridiculous in the service of something so important, the tenacity to see it through, and the heroism and commitment to teaching us all that good, healthy food is essential and necessary to our well being and should sustain us throughout our lives.

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