by Marion Nestle
Apr 12 2010

Eating Liberally: A vote for Jamie Oliver

In part in response to the outpouring of hate mail about Jamie Oliver’s “food revolution,” Kerry Trueman has tossed in another question from Eating Liberally:

KT: The last two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution have yet to air, but folks are already assessing whether Oliver’s attempt to launch a culinary coup in the community of Huntington, West Virginia was a success or a failure. Jamie’s ‘people’ consulted you at the start of this project. Did they heed your advice? If it had been your show, how would you have gone in and done it?

Dr. Nestle: I don’t watch much TV (technophobe that I am, I have yet to figure out how to turn it on without resorting to instructions), but I would not miss the Jamie Oliver show. I first heard about it from students in my NYU Food Ethics class. They made it clear that the show was well worth watching by anyone who cares about how America eats.

I was dubious. When I met with Jamie Oliver’s staff in London last summer—an information session, not a consult—I thought the project sounded kind of arrogant but knowing nothing about reality television, I was curious to see how it would go.

Splendidly, I would say. What I hadn’t realized is how much fun this guy is, and how gutsy. OK, he has annoying Briticisms. OK, a lot of this is about him.

But he wants everyone to learn to cook healthy food and have fun doing it. He wants school lunches to be better. He wants people to be healthier. Along the way, he is exposing deep flaws in the federal school meal programs and in the kinds of foods that many people eat without giving what they eat much thought. Sounds good to me.

I’m kind of stunned by the hostility the programs have evoked among people I would have expected to support these goals. My teaching assistant, Maya Joseph, a doctoral student at the New School, categorized the criticisms for me:

• the wounded ego messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not mention MY work!!)

• the ugly foreigner message (how dare Jamie tell AMERICANS what to eat!)

• the outraged sensitivity messages (how dare Jamie Oliver not take account of X,Y, and Z when he so rudely ballooned into this town).

Maya adds: “I would have thought that it would be obvious…that this is (a) a TV show! and (b) great publicity for our food system tragedies.”

Me too. Or, as food consultant Kate Adamick points out in the first of  her ongoing reviews on the Atlantic Food Channel, “the revolution will be televised.”

This is reality TV aimed at an important public health problem. Is it theater, or is something bigger going on?

From the number of people I know who are watching it and talking about it, I’m voting for bigger. I think it’s useful for people to know that kids at school think it’s normal to eat pizza for breakfast, French fries for lunch, and nothing with a knife and fork. And they have no idea what a tomato or a potato looks like. People need to know that schools and USDA regulations allow these things to happen. They need to know that better food costs more.

From my observations of school food over the years, getting decent food into schools requires:

•  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.

Jamie Oliver is trying to reach all of these people, and more.

I think the programs have much to teach about the reality of school food and what it will take to fix it. The New York Times reviewer, also dubious at first, ended his review 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.

Yes! And these programs could help.

Finally, let me comment on the West Virginia University’s evaluation. This survey found that the kids didn’t like Oliver’s meals (but did try them). The staff didn’t like the increased work. Everything cost more.

Once again, this is TV, not a real school intervention. Real ones start at the beginning of a semester, not in the middle, and are about food, not entertainment. They also do not leave it up to the kids to decide what to eat.

As I said in one of my blog posts on these programs, I want to know what happens in schools and in the community after the TV crews are gone. If the programs are any indication, I think real changes will take place in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of at least some participants and viewers. Whether researchers can figure out how to capture those changes is another matter.

Watch them. And get your kids to watch with you.

Addition April 21: Jane Black of the Washington Post has done a thorough evaluation of the TV series accompanied by notes on her  personal interview with Jamie Oliver.   She thinks he did some good.  Me too.

  • Emily

    I have been puzzled by the enmity of these attacks all along, but I think this summary of the nature of the complaints makes a lot of sense. But really, people need to lighten up! It’s TV, for crying out loud.

  • I don’t get why so many people are against the “foreigner” helping us…I think we need a little foreign help! America has become so convenience-oriented, which is degrading our food and health system. I definitely agree that a small program implemented in a small town in WV isn’t going to save the nation, but why all the criticism from so many. It’s certainly not making matters worse, and right now I think we can use every little bit that’s exposing our convenience-oriented, degraded industry.

  • More power to Jamie Oliver for taking on the huge challenge of prying Americans away from their convenience food! It’s not surprising that we are annoyed and defensive: food is identity, and processed food has, sadly, become our national cuisine. Maybe an outsider/foreigner is the best person to point this out.

  • Lynn

    I say bravo to Jamie for fighting on our behalf for good health and ‘real food’. The Western diet and American agribusiness is invading the world and many countries have seen the impact it has caused not only to their health but their land. Yeah, I think a foreigner has the right to speak up and try to change the way we think and eat!

  • Carol

    I love Jamie’s show, both for the problems it’s exposing and the scandal it’s creating, and I support this “foreigner” in his work. My question is, why did it take a foreigner to get this on TV?

  • Carol

    I love Jamie’s show, both for the problems it’s exposing and the scandal it’s creating, and I support this “foreigner” in his work. My question is, why did it take a foreigner to get this on American TV?

  • Katie

    It’s never really fun having problems highlighted and it can be really hard when someone’s saying that you’re not feeding your children properly. Of course you assume people think it’s a lack of love when it’s more often a lack of knowledge or perhaps skewed priorities.
    Jamie’s UK show resulted in the UK government putting significantly more money into school lunches and many schools overhauling their food. That’s very impressive.
    In Australia we often look to the US for fashion and our school tuckshops (canteens) have been going the same way as the US to some degree. I’m grateful for these shows as I’m hoping they will head us off at the pass before cheap trashy food becomes ingrained in our schools.
    And Jamie’s TED talk was fantastic, he’s quite right about the ability to cook being a great weapon in hard economic times, it is a great gift to teach your children to cook.
    I know many of us would like to revolutionise the way people eat, I think we’re lucky that jamie Oliver has the resources to make a really big noise about it.

  • Lynn

    BRAVO Katie!

  • Lynn

    Just when I thought the fried Twinkies concept was disgusting:

  • I wasn’t aware that Jamie Oliver’s show had evoked such pronounced hostility, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. We have a serious nutrition, diet and obesity problem in this country, and I’m certain our society at large must be in denial. I definitely appreciate Jamie Oliver for taking a run at this!

  • This is a good show and a worthwhile project marred by the fact that Jamie Oliver is trying a different approach at ‘breaking into America’.

    He sells books and TV shows first and foremost and this is not about carring, but about profit which usually has a sinister tinge to it somewhere. If this were a charitble venture, I would be more receptive.

    Oliver tried a few years ago to sell books in the US but couldn’t do it (he was on Letterman with Tom Cruise in 2007 or 2008). After failing, the producers and Oliver went back to the drawing board and tried a different tack.

    What this show does highlight is that the nutrition education departments need to add drama classes and presentation skills to courses (maybe tap classes also). Popularism sells fast food, so it seems that popularity tools need to be used to sell ‘eat less and move’ more messages in order to get into prime time tv slots.

  • Anne Douglass

    If you wonder if the show is valid- Do as suggested. Watch with kids. He is speaking to the kids. I am a creative director for a farm to table cooking program for kids and adults and a rep for one of edible’s regional magazines. I know the business of food. I watched on two seperate occassions with kids 11-13. Both sets pledge to not eat chicken nuggets again after seeing his demo and tell the kids in lunch line how they are made. He is giving kids the ability to recgonize and verbalize why this food is a bad choice. By doing that he is giving them the motivation to change practices. Both sets of kids said during the show that segments should air in their school health class.It is just another form of education.

  • ggratton

    Jamie Oliver was instrumental in getting Britain to change their school food policies and he is trying to make an impact here. I have to say, I was completely shocked when I saw the children unable to identify a tomato and other common vegetables. That alone should provide us some measure of how bad things have gotten in this country. Bravo to Jamie for taking on the Huntington Alabama challenge.

  • Some good news for Jamie:

    “…an audience of prestigious economists was told that the healthier school dinners introduced by the celebrity chef had not only significantly improved pupils’ test results, but also cut the number of days they were off sick. The effects, researchers said, were comparable in magnitude to those seen after the introduction of the literacy hour in the 90s.”

  • Count me among those who are just annoyed by Jamie Oliver’s show. But I think that for those of us on the front lines of the battle to improve school food, who live and breathe this issue 24/7, it is really hard to remember that most people in this country remain ignorant of the issue (Michelle Obama nonwithstanding) and that anything that brings it to the forefront of the public debate is good.

    On the other hand, my biggest gripe, both with the show and with your review is that not enough emphasis has been placed on the fact that real reform costs money – a LOT more money! At this point in the program, we have heard the district nutrition director mention that Jamie’s menus have doubled her food costs, and we have seen him bring in more labor (at additional cost, of course, but this has not been quantified.) He has talked about trying to raise money to pay for additional staff training, but should this have to be the responsibility of every individual school district? Shouldn’t the government which mandates and oversees the school meal program be paying for this?

    Read what you have written; you do mention increased cost, but only as an aside, and only in the context of reviewing what the WVU evaluation said. It didn’t make your list of what is required to get decent food into schools. Believe me, the good intentions of principals, teachers and parents are not enough in the absence of higher funding.

    That the show fails to effectively make this point at the very
    moment that the Senate has proposed a mere 6 CENTS increase in the reimbursement for a free lunch (and while the House is still finalizing their proposal) just adds insult to injury. What a lost opportunity to make the public aware that the biggest problem facing those who want to improve school food is not parental ignorance or wary cafeteria workers but rather underfunding by our government. If only Jamie would focus on that…….

  • I watched part of his series in the UK while I was there, and kept talking about it to friends and family. He faced some of the same hostility problems, including mothers poking fish and chips through the school fences as if the kids were in a concentration camp.

    Granted, he’s a bit annoying–those tears! ugh!–but I think that what he’s doing is fantastic.

    Our kids’ lunches are quite simply disgusting. And because in my chidren’s schools in North Carolina are so time-pressured, they can’t even get to their lockers to get packed lunches. All I can do is to try to feed them well at home.

    I am perplexed as to why more of us don’t connect the dots between low food costs and high health care costs. I would gladly pay an extra dollar a day for lunches, or contribute to a lunch fund-raising campaign, in order to stay away from future health issues.

    The most succint thing I can say about the series is: my kids love it. They watch it avidly and will never eat a chicken nugget again. Although they’ve always been pretty good about eating veggies and shop the farmers’ market with me, they have still learned a lot. Loved the exuberance of the dance in the last episode; cried at the girl who may have only years to live; groaned at the deep fryer family’s diet. Rock on, Jamie.

  • Sheila

    The venomous response to this series has shown just how much America has given up all control of, and responsibility for, our health as influenced by food. We have apparently decided that eating garbage and feeding our kids garbage is ok, and it will have to be somebody else’s responsibility to fix the resulting health issues. Very sad for us.

  • Joy

    I agree with Katie. A good, stabilizing solution does not have to be as difficult as many think, which is at the core of Jamie Oliver’s message. It does take a desire to improve things. Theater (and tv) can help deliver important messages.

    By learning to feed ourselves, we can each children about food from an early age, bringing them into the kitchen and allowing them to participate. Developing a routine of home cooking engages everyone in the process. Food preparation strengthens families through long-standing and newly-formed cultural traditions.

    When we prepare our own food, we know what’s in it. Reading labels give us wisdom to distinguish those food products which are good and useful for increased convenience from those harmful to human health. Start slowly and learn what is adaptable to your individual situation.

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  • Neil

    Jamie is doing a pilot study. Huntington, West Virginia wouldn’t have been my first choice for a population based behavioral intervention.
    All diseases are genetic/ environmental interactions and obesity is the most complex epidemic. Right Dr. Nestle?
    Jamie is grabbing for the obesity epidemic pumphandle. He doesn’t know what he is touching. America’s food industry zealously guards that pumphandle because it is their bread and butter. They have $92 billion dollars? at stake. Any John Snow dumb enough to grab a hold of the obesity epidemic pumphandle will be tossed in to a political wood chipper. Manufacture doubt and the game shoot the messenger are commonplace in this food fight.
    Compare the obesity epidemic to the 1854 London cholera epidemic. The 1854 cholera epidemic changed science and society forever. OBESITY WILL DO THE SAME THING ( for better or worse this epidemic will change EVERYTHING). Success is a long shot at best but it is fight we have to fight. Nobody in their right mind jumps into a political wood chipper, they need to pushed. Jamie is pushing and very slowly raising the heat on the political front burner to boil a few frogs in Washington D.C. I prefer a more direct approach myself. I have learned nothing bred success like failure. Jamie’s failures have not hit the air or he has not meet with them yet. A couple of things in Food Revolution stuck out (for me): In the first episode he dealt with neophobia (the fear of new foods) and in the 2nd episode he saw the absurb the bureaucracy in our food system: a system that considers a french fry as a vegetable. WRONG! Fries are fried starch. Jamie is a trooper but he has yet to hit the political buzzsaw.
    The Obamas have made me angry with their childhood obesity campaign and health care reform. I want President Obama in the wood chipper playing Superman and fighting for our future and justice. We have the science to stop the obesity epidemic but we don’t have the political will. Americans need to renew their political resources and fight for the future.

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  • I think the fact that a single person, sans any affiliation with a charity organization, can help revolutionize a country (I’ve read that Guardian article about the improving grades) is really amazing! I do not live in America but if I had a foreigner coming to my country, showing his concerns, I would be flattered.
    As for the publicity and TV broadcast, I see no (proven) negative effects whatsoever. His show has helped THIS 19 y-old living in South East Asia to be inspired to start living healthy. The show isn’t only for americans, so I suggest start thinking about the positive impact it has on people living across the world, instead of just focusing on the bad publicity it MIGHT have given to america, or that he MIGHT be just in it for the money and fame.
    Since watching this show, I have myself stopped eating processed foods, and encouraged my friends and family to do so too. And I’m not even american.

  • Amy T Johns

    I would be the first person in line to improve the overall health and eating habits of young children & teenagers. My three granddaughters have lost over 130 pounds in the course of 1 year. My immediate family has had a total weight loss of almost 400 pounds. My twin girls are 12 years old and have lost 48 pounds-and 59 pounds. The baby girl has lost 30 pounds. All three of them ate breakfast & lunch in our cafeteria at the elementary school where I have been the manager for 4 years. Our meals are healthy, portioned, and balanced. We drasticly changed our eating habits at home. No more fried foods, no more “sweet cakes,” no more sodas, no more rice, bread, potatoes & sugar!!! With this accomplishment in my family…Jamie Oliver could never convince me that school meals make our children overweight! The cause of our obesity problem in America is because of what children are eating at home and what they are not doing when the arrive home from school!! I did the damage to my family by cooking the food I cooked in the past. I made the menus, purchased the food, prepared it, and prepared their plates and let them go back for second helpings. Adults set our children’s eating habits…if you had never allowed your child to eat a piece of pizza…or if you had never eaten pizza in their presence…how would they know it tastes good??? It is my opinion that parents have set the example before their children for healthy (or unhealthy) eating, and now the schools are being blamed for parents’ bad choices….just like behavior issues and values instilled in children. Most parents with overweight children are not willing to change their eating habits in order to encourage their children to eat healthier. I can promise you this: most of the time children follow their leaders…who’s leading your children?

  • Sarah

    @Amy T Johns
    Yes, what you say about overweight families has some truth to it, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a problem with school food in general. Maybe the food at your school is better than the food at other schools, but you said you drastically changed your eating habits with no fried foods, bread potatoes, sugar, pizza, etc. On that show, young children in school are given a large piece of pizza for breakfast along with their cereal and sweetened milk, then chicken nuggets and a huge pile of fries for lunch! As a fully grown adult, if I ate that in one day, I’d have to eat a salad for dinner. Plus, it’s a lot of calories wasted without much nutrition. On its own it might not make someone overweight or obese, but it probably makes them heavier than they would be if they were eating salad, fruit, (fresh) chicken soup, whole oats, etc.

  • Amy T Johns

    I am a school service manager at an elementary school in South Georgia. It is a known fact that Georgia’s School Nutrition Program is one of the best in the country. We have specific guidelines and regulations concerning food served to school-age children in our state. For breakfast, each child must be served 8 oz of 1% milk, 1/2 cup of canned fruit,(in it’s own juice-no sugar added) or 1 serving of fresh fruit, 1 serving of bread(1 oz) and 1 oz of meat or a meat alternate(eggs, low fat cheese, peanut butter, or low fat yogurt). You may serve a child 2 servings of bread, but if you do, they are not allowed to have meat. For lunch each child MUST be served 5 components on their tray: meat, bread, fruit, vegetable, & milk. 2-3 oz of meat,(depending on the age of each group of students) 1 serving of bread(this includes whole wheat bread, rice, pasta, biscuit, rolls, or cereal grains) 1/2 cup of fruits, 1/2 cup of vegetables, and 8oz of milk. We have grades Pre-K through 7th grade at our school and our enrollment is approximately 850 students. Older students are required to be served 3/4 cup of fruits and vegetables and 3oz of meat. We feed 98% of our student enrollment. I take my job very seriously and my staff is trained and certified in food safety and nutrition. Our students have hot, home-cooked meals 3 days each week. We try to plan “student friendly” meals for Mondays and Fridays. We don’t fry any items in our kitchen. We do have chicken nuggets(not too often) but they are ALWAYS baked-never fried. We also serve pizza(one of our students’ favorite items) it is made with low-fat cheese(no meat) and whole wheat crust. We ALWAYS serve the proper serving size. Managers are required to keep meal production records with amounts of food served and the cost of the entire meal, as well as the total cost of each meal served. This will ensure cost management is at it’s best. About childhood obesity…it saddens me if students are being served the items that were named in the previous comment. It is the responsibility of our local school nutrition directors, school board members and cafeteria managers to create menus which include healthy food choices, but it is the responsibilty of the parents to request-or make demands- that students in each school are being fed healthy, well-planned, balanced, and properly portioned meals. After all, our tax dollars are helping to pay their salaries!

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