There has also been close cooperation with the food industry in research into fortifying and enriching food products which might simplify school feeding in schools which lack space and food preparation facilities.—USDA National School Lunch Program History
America was founded upon a set of ideals. None more inspiring than the notion through hard work and enterprise, we may afford our children when they grow up, the opportunity to enjoy a better life than that of their parents.
Last Friday evening (March 26, 2010) on ABC television, a remarkable thing occurred. Jamie Oliver, a British chef and television celebrity host, introduced his new television show, Food Revolution; Oliver is determined to deliver healthy food to kids in school. His stated goal is to change the way America’s kids eat!
I had heard of this show, and I was quite skeptical that any network would take on the real issues that underlie the problems we face with our food system—especially those relating to the public schools. After watching the second part of this two-hour season premiere, I found it to be: brilliant!
In a rare display of balance between art (entertainment) and education, ABC and in this case, credit to the executive producer’s: Ryan Seacrest, Jaime Oliver, also the host, and Craig Armstrong, for keeping it relatively pure. Watching Jaime Oliver, I found myself being entertained, outraged, saddened (though not surprised), and also hopeful (this was a surprise). For if the show continues on in this vein, it possibly will accomplish more than all the grassroots food organizations and food activists can hope to achieve—it will educate mainstream America about our food system, and in so doing, may lead to a true food revolution.
This show provides a glimpse into how incredibly broken our food system is, and how impotent our response in addressing these problems has been. So far—it’s really just scratched at the surface. Without resorting to cheap tricks to increase the drama and tension of the story, this new reality TV series exposes a harsh truth of American life—our kids are the ultimate victims of a laissez-faire economic system that values profit (defined in the narrowest of terms), above all else, and that fails to connect the dots between our food system, public health, the environment, and the resulting impact on children’s well-being.
Through a ceaseless barrage of advertising directed specifically at children; the predominance of fast food restaurants, and the ethic of eating out, and doing so, cheaply; the wide prevalence of processed foods in supermarkets, schools, and at home, in place of fresh, whole foods; societal lifestyle changes that de-emphasize exercise, and physical play; these are among the toxic elements that combine to promote an epidemic of childhood obesity, and the chronic lifelong diseases that can ultimately result.
For those who may have missed this episode, Jaime Oliver, food activist and intrepid cook, takes on the Central City Elementary school lunch program administered by a a small cooking staff there at the school in Huntington, West Virginia. For starters, most public schools across the nation do not have working kitchens, along with staff on hand that actually cook food from scratch. More typically, food is contracted through a third-party service by the school district, and the food is delivered each day, heated up on premises, and served. Right from the get go, this school has an advantage over many other meal programs in the country—it can make its own food from scratch.
And, as we learn first-hand watching Oliver, the young elementary school students, the teachers, the cooking staff, and some administration officials, the type of food these kids are receiving over the course of a typical month, is appalling. Saturated fatty foods, sugary drinks, highly processed foods, these are the types of foods the kids have been taught to eat at school!
In one scene, faced with a sense of desperation, Oliver resorts to his full proof method to shock the kids into realizing what’s in the kind of food they like to eat.
In a live demonstration before a group of young students, he grinds up the raw chicken remains, including the skin and bones. Oliver shapes them into small chicken patties, fries them in cooking oil, and then inquires, who would like to eat these chicken patties? To his horror and dismay, almost all the students are enthusiastically willing.
But changing the food at public schools will not be easy in other ways, as well. First, there is a level of reality that gets partially suspended watching the drama unfold as the school district supervisor decides (along with the principal) whether Oliver will be given more time to demonstrate he can cook food that the kids will eat, and that will be affordable for the district. Already, we learn that his meals have gone way over the school’s daily budget. And there lies the serious rub. It costs more money to serve healthy food, perhaps significantly more money than it currently costs for the unhealthy equivalent. Are we willing to make this investment? What about the added costs to convert kitchens at schools into being able to cook fresh foods? And the costs for adding the necessary cooking staff? This is a great jumping off point for a wider discussion about our goals and values as a society, especially as it relates to our children’s future.
Are we determined to have a food system that delivers the cheapest food possible, in the same vein, as we may wish to produce the cheapest television sets? If so, how do we as a nation, and also as inhabitants of a single planet, contend with the public health ramifications of cheap food, and the deleterious effects upon the environment that cheap food promotes?
Like the health care reform issue, our food system (though, if you had been listening closely to the most recent health debate, you may never have guessed there was even a connection with our food system), involves an intricately, interconnected set of issues that defies a piecemeal approach to being solved. Restoring healthy food in the nation’s public schools, along with fostering a conscious desire among young people toward eating fresh, seasonal, whole foods will require a wider systemic approach to changing our food system.
Food Revolution with Jaime Oliver has the potential, if they stay true to the facts, and follow the bread crumbs where they may lead, of performing a public service to society that visionaries for the new medium of television, 50 or more years ago, had hoped in vain to achieve with this invention.
Wouldn’t it be truly remarkable, as our news and journalism outlets continue their sad decline; our political institutions locked in partisan gridlock; as American society remains sharply divided on major issues; as income disparity between the rich and poor now equals levels found in some third-world countries; as corporations too big to fail, are allowed to grow even bigger, and more powerful— yet, through the improbable medium of television—at long last—information exposes hidden truths that inspire mainstream America to take back its food system?
As Oliver and company demonstrate in this episode, we are systematically predestining too many of our nation’s youth to a lesser fate. By holding up the mirror, perhaps it will be an outsider that helps us rediscover the quintessential American dream…