Friday, January 27, 2012

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Lives On!

Since I mentioned Jamie Oliver briefly in my last post, I thought it would be a good idea to explain. Basically, he is a spunky English dude who had a great show on ABC called "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution." I am sad to see that the show is no longer on the ABC website, as it was one of my favorites.

The basic premise was that in order to fight the obesity epidemic, Jamie wanted to change the minds of Americans about how to cook fresh, healthy, and delicious food. For the television show, he went into public schools to reveal the junk being served and to re-teach the cafeteria workers to cook using fresh, healthy ingredients. In addition, he engaged the community by opening a kitchen that offered free healthy cooking classes, holding public demonstrations, hosting cooking competitions, and more. (He is also the one who first alerted me to how much sugar is in a typical serving of chocolate milk. It is truly astounding!)

In the first season, Jamie tackled the town of Huntington, West Virginia, dubbed the "fattest city in America." I was surprised by how much resistance he met along the way, not just from the school board, but also from families who opted to send their kids with home-made lunches after they saw the healthy changes Jamie had made in the cafeterias. Why parents would allow their children to buy pizza and french fries every day, but then actively switch to home-packed lunches once healthier options were implemented, just defies explanation. Jamie even created the recipes specifically with kids in mind, such as healthier nachos. It wasn't as if the schools were serving bland, boring meals.

One day, after he had begun making changes to the school lunch menu, he did a survey of the home-packed lunches in the cafeteria. He found only one child with a sandwich and fruit. Most of the rest, whose parents had recently decided to disallow the purchase of the healthier school lunches, did not even have what I would consider a "main meal item," but had brought only chips, candy, and juice boxes or sodas. That just shocked me, as I had never encountered a friend growing up whose parents did not even try to provide a single healthy item - imagine encountering an entire cafeteria of these lunches!

In the end, I suppose parents have the right to decide what their kids eat for lunch. If parents want to send their kids into the cafeteria with only junk, well, I guess it is their prerogative to expedite the onset of type two diabetes. I am not categorically criticizing parents who either pack a lunch or who allow their children to purchase a school lunch. My own family usually did the school lunch thing growing up, and I turned out just fine. (Although after watching the show and reading a bit, I have a feeling my school district was doing a bit better than most with the lunch options.) My husband's family, on the other hand, always hand-packed a nutritious meal. Kudos for the extra effort and saving money! But what I really don't understand is if you were already sending your kid to school with $2.00 per day to purchase a bunch of cheap, greasy, over-processed food, why would you change your mind once the food had improved with no extra effort or cost on your part? Kids tastes will evolve if they are exposed to good things!

Finally, after months of work, Jamie seemed to make some progress in changing the minds of Huntington's residents and getting parents on board with the improvements he was implementing. I would be interested to see how the town is doing now.

Jamie was met with even more resistance in Los Angeles during the show's second season, mainly due to a ridiculously paranoid school board. Most people would gag to see the stuff they serve in school lunches there. Whereas Huntington's typical fare was only moderately worse than the school lunches I grew up with, Los Angeles' food is pre-made at a central location, packaged as individual servings in plastic wrap, frozen, and then microwaved/served in said plastic wrap at the schools. Every single item looked like a soggy, plastic-y mess. Gross! Alas, I can understand the stern interventions of that school board - if I were them, I would not want my disgusting food secrets exposed either! Sadly, that may have been the demise of Jamie's television show.

Although his show is no longer on the air, Jamie still maintains a very informative website, with facts about what America eats, what we serve in our school lunches, and how you can help bring about change. And of course, he has some very easy recipes to try in your own home!

One recent and interesting development in the school lunch/breakfast saga is the passage of the new USDA nutritional standards, which were released this month as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. This act was spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama and initially signed into law in late 2010.

Although it is true that the nutritional standards still allow the serving of french fries every day and consider 2 TBSP pizza sauce a "vegetable," (you can thank special interest groups for lobbying to keep these wonderful rules), the legislation is a major improvement over what has been in place for the last fifteen years. It requires less sodium and trans fat, while mandating more whole grains and fruits/vegetables. Some of these changes will be phased in over several years, with intermediate targets that schools must achieve.

For example schools are expected to meet certain sodium targets for each week of meals, which represent a 25% - 50% reduction in sodium content for breakfasts and lunches. According to the USDA/Department of Agriculture report, for ages 4-18, the upper limit for sodium intake ranges from 1900 to 2300 milligrams per day. Schools are expected to meet certain intermediate targets to be checked at the two year and four year marks, achieving full compliance (averaging below the maximum daily intake recommendations) in ten years.

Many schools systems are concerned about meeting the various nutritional targets while staying within budget. While I acknowledge that this is a genuine obstacle, I tend to lean towards the stance that they should stop making excuses for contributing to the obesity epidemic and get busy creating new menus! I bet Jamie Oliver would be happy to point them to some excellent resources and recipes. And in the Bay Area, I am sure we can harness some of our innovation power to overcome these real challenges in a way that meaningfully improves our communities. Ten years should be sufficient time to plan.

Most importantly, I sincerely hope these new regulations make a real difference in the health of our nation's children!

If you want to learn more about Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, check out his website!

I also highly recommend reading the full summary of the new nutritional standards.

Photo Credits:


  1. I think that backlash is really interesting. I think it's probably because people get defensive when someone tries to tell them they are doing something wrong, especially surrounding their kids - but I'm glad he was able to bring about some change. I do remember enjoying hash browns during 'free orchestra practice' as well as french fries at lunch, the gross nachos and the even grosser cheese steak, and cheetos (and your favorite grape soda) from the vending machine though. Thank goodness for Cross Country!

  2. I totally loved the cheese steak, which was NOT gross! ;-) I also used the salad bar line in high school at least once a week, mainly when I didn't like the other options.

    I also personally think there's a difference between vending machines for 16-year-olds and vending machines for 6-year-olds, but that could just be me. I don't ever recall having machines around in elementary school, although I guess some kids' parents gave them extra money to buy chips or ice cream from the lunch line. (Mine didn't.)