by Marion Nestle
Mar 28 2010

Jamie Oliver’s food revolution. Yes!

I’m not much of a TV-watcher but from what I’ve been hearing about Jamie Oliver’s new series, I thought I had best take a look.

Don’t miss it.  Get your kids to watch it with you.

Oliver, in case you haven’t been paying attention, went to Huntington, West Virginia (ostensibly the obesity capital of the world), TV crew in hand, to reform the town’s school lunch program.

Take a deep breath.  Try not to get turned off by Oliver’s statement that “the food revolution starts here” (no Jamie, it doesn’t).  Try not to cringe when he calls the food service workers “girls” and “luv” (OK, it’s a cultural problem).  Remember: this is reality TV.

With that said, let’s give the guy plenty of credit for what he is trying to do: cook real food.  What a concept!

And let’s cut him some slack for what he is up against: USDA rules that make cooking too expensive for school budgets, entrenched negative attitudes, widespread cluelessness about dietary principles as well as what food is and how to cook it, and kids who think it is entirely normal to eat pizza for breakfast and chicken nuggets for lunch, neither with a knife and fork.

What impressed me most is that Oliver is going about addressing these barriers in exactly the right way.  From my observations of school food over the years, the key elements for getting decent food into schools are these:

  • A principal who cares about what kids eat
  • Teachers who care about what kids eat
  • Parents who care about what kids eat
  • Food service personnel who not only care what the kids eat, but also know the kids’ names.

For a school food program to work, all of these elements must be in place.  That’s why the school food revolution must be achieved one school at a time.

Watch Oliver go to work on these elements in this one school.

Teacher that I am, for me the most moving – and hopeful – sign was what happened in the classroom.  Oliver holds up tomatoes and asks the kids what they are.  No response.  Not one kid recognizes a potato or knows it as the source of French fries.

How does the teacher react?  As any great teacher, she recognizes a teachable moment and uses it.  When Oliver returns to that class, the kids recognize and can name vegetables, even an eggplant.

This program has much to teach us about the reality of school food and what it takes to fix it.  That is why I so appreciate the comments of  the New York Times reviewer. His review ended with this comment:

One thing noticeably absent from the first two episodes is a discussion of any role the American food industry and its lobbyists might play in the makeup of school lunches and in the formulation of the guidelines set for them by the Agriculture Department. If Mr. Oliver wants a real food revolution, it can’t happen just in Huntington.


Addendum #1: Here’s Jamie Oliver’s TED talk.

Addendum #2: the case against Jamie Oliver, courtesy of (unreason?).

  • The show was great, I’m a big fan of Jamie’s and totally agree that our country, our neighbors, our school need a food revolution. It is time for a wake up call and they’re not always pleasant or welcomed with open arms – much like my alarm call that wakes me up each day. Cheers to Jamie for getting national media time to do what no one has.

    For me, I wanted to cry when those 1st graders couldn’t identify common fruits and vegetables that mine have recognized since they could eat them. I watched the show with my 6YO son and was proud when he was grossed out by the chicken patty experiment. He asked, “mom, why would anyone want to make something so bad”?

    It’s going to take a lot more than Jamie Oliver and his show to truly have impact on the health of our nation but people are talking and that’s a huge step in the right direction!


  • Emily

    I really do hope this show does some good, though frankly I have my doubts. For one thing, I think that, in many American minds, a British accent is just elitist ore pretentious just by itself. For another, he seems so dang EARNEST! But I will keep my fingers crossed.

    Incidentally, what the heck kind of adult doesn’t recognize something like raw cauliflower and what form are they eating it in if the raw thing is completely unfamiliar?

  • The very first foodborne illness outbreak lawsuit that we ever had go to trial, and to jury verdict, involved elementary school food, and the commodity (read: free) ground beef that the school used to make tacos for lunch. Long story short: undercooked ground beef and E. coli O157:H7 don’t mix well, and certainly not when fed to children. Of the many still vivid memories I have of this case, there is one that really came back to me watching Jamie Oliver’s new show. The “lunch ladies” don’t really do much cooking. Mostly it’s just reheating things like chicken nuggets and french fries. The outbreak that gave rise to this particular lawsuit was largely the result of a taco lunch, made from frozen ground beef, was too complicated of a dish for them to safely prepare. And, not surprisingly, it was one of the only things that they ever made from scratch, and in large quantities because “taco day” was, as one “lunch lady” explained, “is really, really popular with the kids.” The more things change, the….

  • Is food really that bad in the US? This is just too sad. Those poor kids not getting all the proper nutrition–and they are in school. =( I hope more parents would watch the show and would develop more concern for their children’s health.
    It’s time for this

  • Emily

    (And what’s with that “Courtesy of Reason” author’s weird personal enmity? I’m a little creeped out by that, and can’t help but wonder what part of that counts as reason.)

  • Rick T

    Marion Nestle and Jamie Oliver aren’t very smart if you ask me. sure we need to change some of the things we eat. who decided that it ws up to someone else to tell me i can’t have the foods that i want. You can’t and should force people to change. First off they won’t do it. this nation wasn’t built on telling people what they could or could not do. Neither of you have the right to force these kids or anyone else for that matter to eat what you want them too. the way to get people to change is to teach them the right things to eat ans why they should eat them. it is the persons free choice to decide whether or not to eat them. If you try to force kids to et what they don’t want they will just stop eating. adults are the same way except adults won’t stop eating they will just fix what they want. Its like smoking. for years people were shown pictures of cancerous lungs from smoking. None of that scare tactics worked. what worked is teaching people the smoking cause cancer. the way to avoid lung cancer is to not smoke. you can’t tell people what to do. they will rebel most of the time. what you do is teach and lead them to where they need to be. They still have a God given right to chose for themselves whether or not to follow. It seems in this day and age that the more educated a person is the dumber they are.