Monday, April 5, 2010

School Lunch Reform & the "Food Revolution"

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has a new reality television show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, that has been playing Friday nights at 9:00 on ABC. "Why, I had no idea!" you say, "who watches TV anymore, now that we have blogs to read?!" Well, lucky for us, the first 3 full episodes are already on Hulu (and should stay there, at least until June). Jamie visits Huntington, West Virginia, statistically one of the unhealthiest cities in the country to try to improve its residents' eating habits. Jamie's goal with the show seems to be to bring the "food revolution" to middle America (after achieving some success with his previous shows to reform school lunch in the UK), but many of the people working on "Jamie's Revolution" for decades have been critical of his methods.

Before the show even aired, however, it was met with criticism and cynicism on some listservs and talk shows. The Washington Post even published a pretty scathing (but accurate) review that the show "has all the problems of most network reality pap...Its "moving" attempts at charity ooze the opportunism seen in "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." And it has a certain hectoring quality, a la "SuperNanny," that obscures its educational aim. In its zeal to show America to itself, it helps America make fun of itself." I agree with these points completely-- it is reality TV, after all, but the majority of prime time viewers have never seen his TED talk, so does this show do any "net good" by getting mainstream America talking more about the "food revolution" and school lunch reform? This is clearly an important time for topic to be discussed-- "as evidenced by the much talked about debut of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and the Senate Agricultural Committee’s recent passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010." The Washington post review points out that the show maybe not be doing enough to bring the tough issues to the table. There is no serious discussion of America's "politicization of food -- the whole arugula divide, the high cost of eating right, the class issues over portion size, the constant character judgments strewn between a fine meal and the drive-thru." Other reviewers online repeatedly point out Jamie's uncomfortable "ownership" of the "revolution" and his dubious community organizing techniques (send in the Brit with the mockney accent to tell the fat families of Appalachia that they're doing things wrong), but many of these decisions seem to be made by ABC to maximize ratings.

More serious criticisms from from Debra Eschmeyer, the Marketing and Media Director of the National Farm to School Network. On her blog, Civil Eats, she worries that "Oliver's glamorized and sentimental attempt at school lunch reform could actually hinder the established grassroots 'food revolutions" already underway throughout the county" and that "the show's subtle criticism of 'lunch ladies' will alienate those much-needed allies and dissuade them from participating in school lunch reform efforts." She hopes that Jamie’s School Food Charter becomes a reality instead of a reality show and concludes the review with the plea; "Jamie, instead of trying to “start” a revolution, start supporting the one that’s already going on! "

The following clips highlight the need for more (good fresh) food education at a younger age.

these kids certainly know ketchup, but not a tomato. They scream out for french fries, and stare befuddled at a whole potato. Perhaps this is all because that the adults around them most responsible for choosing their lunches are all too willing to bend the USDA rules and count french fries with ketchup as a double serving of vegetables.

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