This week's episode of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" had nothing to do with school food ... and everything to do with school food.
Proclaiming that "the heart of the project is the kitchen," Oliver devotes this entire episode to convincing a thousand Huntington, West Virginia community members to learn to cook one dish: stir-fry. The stunt begins with Oliver making an on-air bet with local radio disc jockey Rod "The Dawg" Willis, who, having apparently appointed himself the official spokesperson for all of Huntington, sneers, "We've got other things to do besides learn a few recipes."
Oliver spends the next week going to whatever lengths necessary to round up a thousand single-lesson culinary students. He partners with a choreographer to create a "flash mob" of Marshall University students who synchronously sauté to hip-hop flamenco music. He teaches 45 blue-collar bruisers how to stir-fry a meal at their factory. He holds free cooking classes on the street outside of his kitchen clinic, "Jamie's Kitchen," where he snaps photos of each new culinarian with a plateful of food. Along the way, he teaches college kids, firemen, sixty-something housewives, steel workers, and even a minister that cooking dinner doesn't require your own syndicated show on the Food Network.
In the process, The Dawg transforms from Oliver's archenemy into his faithful sidekick. Standing in for the ceremonial baptism typical of such spiritual conversions was The Dawg's trip to a morgue to witness a casket so large that it required a cargo van and two contiguous grave sites, a heartbreaking tale of a beautiful young lady whose beloved father ate himself to death, and a tear-jerking conversation with a teenager so obese that her doctors recently told her she may have as few as five years to live.
Of course, this being reality TV, the arc of the episode begins with the daunting, peaks at hopelessness, and ends in triumph as Oliver wins the bet. And, though Oliver never once sets foot in a public school during the episode, the message to all school food activists is clear: attitudes—both good and bad—are infectious.
All too often in my job as a school food consultant, I am faced with my own Dawgs. Though most are not radio hosts, far too common are the school superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and, of course, food service workers and directors,whose favorite words seem to be "won't" and "can't." (As in, "the kids won't eat that," and "we can't do that.") While it is true that some kids will never eat anything new, and that some adults can't seem to do anything new, the rest of us must resist the urge to be dragged into their self-perpetuating vortex of doom. With the Centers for Disease Control declaring our children to be the first generation in history to have a shorter life expectancy than ours due to diet-related illness, it is imperative that we follow Oliver's advice to "remind people that cookin' is fun."
In my experience working in school food reform, I have witnessed—and even encouraged —countless endeavors to change the current school food paradigm. Among the more creative attempts have been school gardens, farm-to-school programs, food-focused art installations, nutrition seminars for parents, and theater productions for kids about healthy eating. But, as ambitious and well-meaning as these efforts have been, the only effort that has substantially changed the food on students' lunch trays has been the act of teaching school food service workers that cooking is indeed fun. By giving them the skills, confidence, and desire to scratch-cook meals, we rid their vocabularies of "can't" and "won't."
I'm told that we are now raising our third generation of Americans who don't know how to cook. If that's true, it's no small wonder that our society is addicted to the faux food that is robbing us —and our children—of our health and longevity. It's time for all of us to learn that cooking is fun. It's time to embrace the notion that the heart of this project is the kitchen. It's time to rid our own vocabularies of "can't" and "won't." Because if we can't do that, we won't survive.
As Oliver said, "This is about real people, real families, health, life, and death."