The School Food Revolution Will Be Televised

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In an interview with Brit chef and self-styled food revolutionary Jamie Oliver, John Hockenberry over at the Takeaway says "I can't decide if you're the Kung Fu Zen master or The Beatles invading our shores."

What Hockenberry's referring to of course is Oliver's "Food Revolution," which began airing last Friday on ABC and has its second episode tonight. The conceit: Oliver visits Huntington, West Virginia, a town of 50,000 that ranks highest in obesity in America, and tries to change its eating habits through the entry point of the school cafeteria.

The reception Oliver receives is neither one a Zen master or The Beatles would expect. Instead of quiet disciples or cheering teenage girls, the chilly school lunchroom staff wonder just what the hell he's up to. I sympathized with them: after all, the idea that Oliver is launching a food revolution in the U.S. is, well, a tad overplayed, ya think? Regardless, he has a point to make, one which needs to be made given the sad state of our diet.

By the looks of it, Huntington is eating a lot of junk, through really no more than the rest of country. What sort of "food"? Pizza for breakfast at school, chocolate and strawberry flavored milk (which The Slow Cook pointed out was nearly indistinguishable from Mountain Dew), chicken tenders, followed by chicken tenders, followed by chicken tenders. The only real food on the school menu is the fresh-baked bread the school kitchen makes, most of which sadly ends up in the rubbish bin, as the Brits call it. Mashed potatoes form when water is added to a pearly substance. When Oliver makes roast chicken—gosh! real chicken, not frozen stuff—the staff is nearly in shock, but the kids don't bite. They go for the pizza, again.

When Oliver pitches his plan to local radio host DJ Rod, he's nearly spit-roasted. "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day," Rod says. "Who made you the king?" What Rod doesn't seem to get is that his neighbors are dying more quickly because of what they eat. But maybe he can't get past the messenger.

Oliver clearly has his work cut out for him. In one home, he cooks up the mom's usual daily fare —pizza, chicken tenders, corn dogs, donuts, etc., etc., without a fresh vegetable in sight. The family ends the scene by burying the deep fryer in the backyard.

Oliver's not alone here. In fact, the series coincides with the rather rich debate going on over school lunch and childhood obesity. You have Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, the passage by a Senate panel of a modest increase in the school lunch budget, the enormous and significant work of "Renegade Lunch Lady" Chef Ann Cooper, and on and on. For another take, check out Fed Up with School Lunch, which features daily offerings at a Chicago school cafeteria by an anonymous teacher who's actually eating the stuff, every day! Clearly a revolution is underway, but it's only just getting going.

The first episode of The Food Revolution is on Hulu if you missed it. When you get finished watching Oliver's trials, check out this talk Chef Ann gave three years ago at TED:

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Samuel Fromartz is a Washington-based writer focusing on food, the environment, and business. He is the author of Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew and is currently working on a book about bakers and bread.

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