Healthy revolution

Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver, British chef, takes on America's schools.

If you couldn’t tell from some of the stuff I write about, I’ll say it now: I like food. I like cooking it, eating it, buying it (local and organic), and watching shows about it. At home, my family always made fun of me, because I made it a point to watch No Reservations, Top Chef, Man vs. Food, and Kitchen Nightmares.

So I was going through my Hulu queue the other day, and I came across Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. At first I resisted, and then I became curious. Was this another Kitchen Nightmares-esque show where some British chef goes around to try to reform restaurants?

Well, yes and no.

Jamie, who happens to be a helluva lot nicer than Gordon Ramsay and touts a nice cockney accent, is on a mission to change America, starting with our schools. We’re immediately dropped into Huntington, West Virginia, a city that was recently deemed “most unhealthy” by the federal government. His first mission: to completely reform school lunches, beginning with one elementary school.

Unfortunately, Jamie is met with a surprising amount of opposition from just about everyone—from a family he’s exclusively working with (they continued to eat fatty foods until he took their obese kids to the doctor, scaring them with the very real future of diabetes) to the lunch ladies and higher-ups to the actual kids. You can’t help but root for the guy.

The school-meal program is absolutely, downright despicable, and in obvious need of major reform. Within the first few minutes of the first episode, we see kids eating pizza and strawberry milk, and Cinnamon Toast Crunch saturated in chocolate milk for breakfast. And then chicken nuggets for lunch. Everything highly processed and full of sugar and sodium. The most disturbing scene, in my opinion, is when Jamie shows a group of kids how chicken nuggets are made. He cleanly divides the chicken into breasts, legs, wings, explaining to them that this is the good, edible, expensive part of the chicken. He then shows them the stinking carcass (to which everyone says EWW), throws it in a blender—bones and all—with some chicken skin and purees and then sivvs. The kids are still squeamish. Then he adds some flour and flavoring, rolls it out, cuts it out, then fries it. And to our shock and horror…after all that…the kids want to eat it. Le sigh! This is how brainwashed our kids are! Then when it comes to school-lunch reform, he is able to come up with his own menu, but the kitchen workers are uncooperative. On the one hand, we’re supposed to probably look at these people as just being stubborn, but there’s a whole other side to the story that I can pretty much guarantee won’t be explored.

People working in our nation’s school kitchens are some of the lowest-paid and most undervalued employees, period. They work long hours, and put up with a lot from parents, school officials, and their own political stratification. They’re bogged down in technicalities, paperwork, and schedules, and I can see with 100 percent clarity how these ladies would have been frustrated with the changes Jamie was trying to make. These people are powerless to make such huge changes by themselves, and the added work of cooking from raw is surely not welcome, considering their current working environment.

At the same time, it’s obvious that the schools in Huntington need a major overhaul.

Where I’m from—Portland, Oregon—Nutrition Services (which works in tandem with Portland Public Schools) is light years ahead of the atrocities we see in Food Revolution (although I think Portland as a whole is light years ahead of most of the rest of the country). I don’t say that lightly, either. Not only are their nutritional requirements completely different, but they have made a conscious and concerted effort to incorporate fresh, local, and healthy fare. Last year, they had Harvest of the Month, which was one meal that was completely locally produced.

This year, they upped the ante and have nixed Harvest of the Month in exchange for a constant emphasis on the local and fresh. The salad bar is always unlimited, and kids learn at a very young age how to make good, wholesome, balanced meal choices. Nutrition Services does not serve flavored milks at breakfast, and when they serve it at lunch, it’s of the nonfat variety that is not in a huge bottle. And I’m pretty sure that they don’t count French fries as a vegetable. They do, however, consider freshly roasted squash as veg. See where I’m going with this?

I’m not telling Oliver to stay away from my hometown, but I am saying that perhaps schools across the nation could take a cue from Portland and start treating kids like the future of our world that they are.