Oh, the irony. During the same week that "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" shined a much-needed spotlight on the hideous machinations of the USDA's commodity food system, more than 130 retired senior military officials issued a written polemic, "Too Fat to Fight," arguing that our national security will be at risk if the National School Lunch Program doesn't quickly shift its focus to that other fungible commodity—children.
Remarkably, somebody in Washington has finally acknowledged that obesity—currently the leading reason that young Americans are rejected for military service—is threatening the future strength of our armed forces. In other words, the industrial food complex is threatening the military industrial complex, and, as a result, the commoditization of our food supply may be forced to take a back seat to the commoditization of our children.
But let's leave our military warriors for a moment and revisit our kitchen warrior, Chef Oliver. This week's episode opens in November 2009, with Oliver heading to a USO-style event in Huntington, West Virginia, where he is joined on stage by Cabell County Schools food service director Rhonda McCoy. Cheered on by newly enthusiastic food service worker Alice "It's-Going-Really-Well" Gue, Oliver and McCoy accept an $80,000 donation earmarked for culinary classes designed to teach McCoy's entire staff how to prepare cooked-from-scratch school meals. All signs point to a healthy victory for Oliver and the children of Huntington.
Fast forward to April 2010, when Oliver reinvades Huntington to confront McCoy, who is threatening to put processed foods back on the district's menus. McCoy, reprising the role of helpless victim that has brought her TV notoriety, tells Oliver that she had to order more processed foods for the 2010 - 2011 school year. Referring to her warehouse full of frozen chicken nuggets, tenders, fingers, and patties, McCoy manages to squeak out, "We don't want it," but "We've got to have some food!" To which Oliver replies, "But not processed."
Federal aid for school meals comes in two forms. First, the government provides money to help pay for school meals served to children whose family income falls below certain economic thresholds. In addition, the USDA provides school districts with surplus foods through the federal commodity food program. Early each calendar year, school district food service directors like McCoy place their commodity orders for the following school year. The list of products available to them includes raw, whole-muscle meat products such as chicken, turkey breasts, pork loins, and ground beef. While these products are almost certainly the result of the factory farming system that now passes for animal husbandry in this country, they are nonetheless basic cuts of meat that our grandmothers would recognize as food. These "brown box" products are available to most school districts for the cost of shipping and handling—about three to four dollars per case—and can be turned into herb-roasted chicken, barbecued pork, sliced turkey sandwiches, meatballs, or any number of scratch-cooked items.