This past weekend, I got hooked on ABC’s Food Revolution, a reality program in which British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver invades Huntington, West Virginia, said to be the most unhealthy town in America, to reform their school lunch program and general health. The show is a typical mix of actual documentary film-making and a truck-load of over-the-top, schmalzy tear-jerking shlock. But as The Biggest Loser and Celebrity Fit Club have shown, audiences love a bit of fat exploitation and reform, and Food Revolution has it in spades.
But the truly fascinating thing, for those who know about Jamie Oliver’s UK program that inspired this U.S. mega reboot, is looking at the differences between the two programs, campaigns and countries. Living in the UK in 2005, I knew all about Jamie’s School Dinners and “Feed Me Better” campaign, though I never watched the program. Jamie’s campaign was more limited in scope — redesign the “school dinners” (aka: hot lunch) at all the schools in one London school borough (Greenwich) — but was emminently more successful than his American one will likely be, and watching the two back-to-back is interesting. In an effort to explore some of the key talking points of Food Revolution, I’d like to examine and compare with Jamie’s School Dinners.
1) British school dinners are/were more unhealthy than U.S. school lunches
Hands down, the Brits win when it comes to the shockingly bad quality of their hot lunches. On Jamie’s School Dinners, the menu at schools in Greenwich look like this: burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, pizza, spam cutlets (no, really), “smileys” (fried potato treats) and the ghastly turkey twizzlers (imagine a cross between sausage in the shape of curly fries… but with less meat, more filler). That’s it, every day — no variance or alternating daily menus, just disgusting junk on offer every day. The saving grace (over America)? The kids were given smaller portions of the junk than Americans kids would be.
The American school lunches shown, on the other hand, involve a revolving door of junk (ie: junk varies day to day), which the exception of fries and pizza, which seem to be available daily. Under the auspices of the USDA guidelines, fruit, milk (albeit flavored), bread and “vegetables” are available every day. But bear in mind that FRIES COUNT AS A VEGETABLE. The big issues with America’s school lunches? Portions & carb/junk overload. While US schools may technically offer salads and fruit, kids don’t eat them, and both the pizza and french fry portions seem on students trays are, predictably, way larger than needed for an 8-year-old. Plus why do kids need TWO servings of bread a day? Answer: they don’t.
2) In the U.S. ridiculous “rules” and loop-holes mean fatter, unhealthier kids (even if the UK has a more exclusive spread of junk)
Seriously, on what planet do greasy french fries count as a vegetable? Potatoes are already fringe vegetables, in terms of relative health benefit (in moderation, yes, in excess — as is the American way — no), and any food deep fried should no longer count as a vegetable, in so much as vegetables should be a tool for healthy eating and living. Jamie runs into a serious obstacle at Huntington High School when his seven vegetable stir-fry is rejected as “not having enough vegetables,” while the pile of fries and optional (that no students opted for) salad in the fried chicken sandwich line “met guidelines.” It’s pretty galling.
The other trap Jamie falls into? Americans are carb loaders who are obsessed with and chronically overload on bread products. The daily guideline in a hot lunch is two breads. TWO BREADS. When Jamie prepares a chicken stir-fry with brown rice, it is rejected because there is “no second bread.” Fact: when you have rice with a meal, you don’t need an additional bread roll. The USDA disagrees, and Jamie has to run to the back to heat up a bunch of preservative rich rolls.
3) Jamie himself is far more likeable in 2004/5′s Jamie’s School Dinners than on Food Revolution
Jamie runs into a lot of trouble in West Virginia (and since airing began, in the media) for being arrogant and self-righteous. Watching first Food Revolution and then Jamie’s School Dinners, the differences in his personality and arrogance levels is astonishing. Jamie Oliver at age 28, just trying out his healthy dinners program, unsure of its success, is a 180 on Jamie Oliver at 33, having had success in Britain and moving on to “fix” the U.S. He is still earnest and well-intentioned on Food Revolution, but his open-mindedness and apologetic nature from School Dinners is gone. It was a lot easier to swallow Jamie’s campaign when he was, well, less full of himself. It’s no wonder he rubs the residents of Huntington the wrong way.
Additionally, School Dinners was more realistic, and in true documentary style, got down to the nitty gritty. Could Jamie cook on budget? Was it logistically possible to retrain all the dinner ladies? There were set-backs and near failures, and Jamie was humbled at every obstacle. None of this in the Food Revolution. The county rep talks about budget, but it’s a magical concept, never really delved into. What does the United States (or at least WV) spend per child on lunch? What does that actually buy?
4) School Dinners was just about, well, school dinners, and making Britain’s kids healthy. Food Revolution is about American eating habits, and battling obesity.
Jamie was also easier to stomach when he was combating a realistic issue: a lack of healthy meal options at schools. Health was the big issue, and looking at the kids in the schools featured, very few of them are overweight. Just constipated, apparently (ick). In Food Revolution, it’s all about milking America’s obesity epidemic, and featuring as many morbidly obese kids (and their parents) as possible. While combating America’s obesity is a key issue, and improving school lunches is a great way to start, Jamie’s answer is overly simplistic. Cooking everything from raw ingredients is not a magic bullet.
This is the one aspect of Jamie’s campaign that bothers me, with its overly simplistic arrogance. Is it a good idea to get America cooking and eating better, and eating fewer processed foods? Yes. But watching what Jamie is cooking for and with people, there are plenty of red flags of potential abuse: using STICKS OF BUTTER in a risotto at his fund-raising dinner. Having people freehand VEGETABLE OIL into a stir-fry pan. Most dishes being PASTA BASED. Given America’s massive problem with, well, massive portions, all of these ingredients have potential to be abused, and equally contribute to weight problems.
It’s easy for Jamie to look at communities like Huntington’s where the majority of people eat processed, fatty, greasy foods (and mostly fast food), pinpoint this as America’s problem and move on. While it is undeniably BETTER for the United States to eat less of this food (if not cut it out all together), the reality is that many foods from “raw ingredients” that Jamie is touting can just as easily lead to weight problems under the American food abuse mentality. I was raised by a progressive, healthy parent who fed me home-cooked food, including tons of vegetables, and rarely allowed me to eat fast food. As an adult, I rarely eat processed food (easy when Trader Joes is your local grocery store!) and partake of fast food only 1-2 times a year. And yet, I am overweight. My issue isn’t that I don’t eat vegetables or that I deep fry everything in oil — I’ve eaten salads and asparagus and favored olive oil since I was a child. But I live in the United States, where portions are big, we’re told to “clean our plates” and snacking is a national past time. There are a lot of ways to get fat. Getting rid of fatty foods and improving school lunches is just the beginning. (also, Jamie, don’t knock sloppy joes. SLOPPY JOES ARE AWESOME).
Jamie’s School Dinners was a far more charming, endearing campaign because Jamie kept it simple, and on message. Unhealthy food in the schools was harming children, particularly their digestive health and behavior. Parents needed to care what was going into their bodies. It was a campaign you could get 100% behind, tackling just one part of a bigger puzzle.
Jamie’s Food Revolution is attempting to tackle the bigger puzzle, without actually understanding what that puzzle is. Despite his best intentions, Jamie often comes off as an arrogant Brit who is coming in to tell the fat Americans how to stop being obese and disgusting. His food revolution IS a good thing, but there is so much more to it. Unnecessary USDA regulations that actively encourage kids to overload on carbohydrates, diary and grains should be reformed. Portions should be reduced. Kids need to be taught to appreciate fruits & vegetables, instead of always going for chicken nuggets and fries. But also,
5) Jamie needs to remember that these are kids, and kids don’t have sophisticated palettes.
There’s a reason kids love pizza, fries, burgers, chicken nuggets and mac & cheese. They are simple foods, with basic tastes and no confusing ingredients, flavors or textures. That said, there’s no reason kids can’t and shouldn’t like simple marinated chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, or a whole plethora of food that is perfectly healthy and yet still simple. However, many of Jamie’s recipes (including the ones he’s successfully launched in the UK) are a bit ambitious — tomato basil pasta = ok. Chinese stir-fry = a bit of a stretch for a lot of kids (there’s a reason Chinese restaurants have a kids menu with some very not-Chinese items on them!). Jamie tried to feed a bunch of kids brown rice! Pick your battles, mate.
Part of Jamie’s efforts are going to be an uphill battle, not because we’re crazy Americans, but because he’s trying to feed 5-year-olds some very grown-up food. Poor Jamie also has his work cut out for him, as far as the “lunch ladies” are concerned.
6) The head “dinner lady” of Jamie’s School Dinners, the loveable Nora, was 100% behind Jamie from the start. In the U.S. version, elementary lunch lady Alice loathes Jamie with a passion.
Nora in the UK wasn’t personally insulted that Jamie wanted to revolutionize the food at her school. She was delighted! It was largely with her positive attitude and perseverance that the program was a success in her school. Nora believed that giving the kids real food was the best thing for them, and over a year, she made the program work.
While I’m sure the ABC schmaltz will show us grizzled lunch lady Alice eventually turning around, I suspect it will be mostly for show. For perfectly understandable reasons as listed above, Alice and her ilk feel attacked, that the very core of American nutrition and the school lunch program (which many schools are proud of) is being attacked. Because Jamie picked Huntington due to a very damning report and article pretty much calling it fat, unhealthy and deadly, the whole town is on edge. Alice is the poster woman of this, and unlike Nora, Alice and her co-workers would eat everything they are serving the children. They also don’t see cooking as something they personally enjoy, so they don’t want to spend the extra time cooking Jamie’s recipes.
Jamie doesn’t have the lunch lady support, and thus in the long-run, this project will make for shiny television, but real life, logistical failure. And that’s not even starting to cover the more vomit-inducing heart-string tugging elements of Jamie’s Food Revolution, that would have been unheard of on Jamie’s School Dinners. More on that later, as surely the stories will continue to develop as the season progresses.
Do I love the show? Oh, yes. But I also have some serious issues with the broad scope of the project and the hokee shellac ABC has sprayed over it. Jamie’s School Dinners was perhaps a little less entertaining, but was far more informative. And that program actually impacted change. Food Revolution is most likely just a passing TV fancy, the latest gimmick to get fat and thin, voyeuristic Americans alike to tune in. Ryan Seacrest is a genius.