Chef Jamie Oliver in America: Irking Libertarians, Pleasing Liberals

America does a double-take at the jumpy Brit

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British celebrity chef, social-justice crusader and TV personality Jamie Oliver has brought his school lunch show to the States--and Americans aren't too impressed. Oliver tries to educate students about food, replace burgers and fries with "mushroom and lentil bake," and isn't above dressing up like a vegetable to get his point across. He's a jumpy, televised, British version of the Michelle Obama anti-obesity campaign. His efforts, though, to transform school lunches in Huntington, West Virginia have met with marked resistance. ("If he can get people to watch a show about Huntington, I am going to buy a hat just to tip it to him," writes the Charleston Daily Mail's Don Surber.) Students surveyed preferred their old lunches to Oliver's healthful options, while the backlash against his preaching has led British Top Chef judge Toby Young to muse on America's antipathy to "pushy Brits."

Attacks and reality TV stunts aside, is Oliver headed the right direction? Libertarians want him silenced, but left-leaners and nutrition experts--though groaning at his on-screen histrionics--think he's on the right track.

  • Studies Show Oliver's Ideas Actually Work!  Treehugger's Bonnie Alter latches onto a study of the schools Oliver reformed in the UK. The study shows 11-year-olds who were switched to Oliver's lunch menu have had fewer "'authorised absences'--which are generally due to illness," and have seen their English and science scores improve. "Wake up America," she says, referring to the resistence to Oliver's programs in the States.
  • Actually, They Don't  Reason's Baylen Linnekin points out in an anti-Oliver manifesto that lower-income kids in the study did not see their scores improve. Thus, Oliver's program actually "increased the academic disparity" between classes. He also looks at a recipe in Oliver's magazine--entitled Jamie--for a 1,183 calorie lunch. That's many more calories than the USDA recommends, and is roughly equivalent to what "the same student would get from eating both a McDonald’s hamburger Happy Meal (hamburger, fries, Sprite) and a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal (McNuggets, fries, Sprite)." He calls Oliver's show "one chef’s quest to subjugate the American diet," and bristles at the big government enthusiasm therein. "he could have argued in favor of parents or kids packing the cheap, easy, and tried-and-true alternative to school food--brown bag lunches."
  • Right On, Oliver  "If by 'the American diet,'" respond Katherine Gustafson at, "Linnekin means chicken nuggets made of the most disgusting stuff you can imagine and just-add-water mashed potatoes, then by all means let's subjugate the heck out of it." She points out that this isn't about stuffing kids full of "arugula and quinoa" so much as " giving them food that will not push them toward an early grave." Gustafson also notes that the low-income kids Linnekin professes concern for aren't likely to have access to his "tried-and-true alternative" of brown bag lunches.
  • Ignore the Drama, Applaud the Effort  Though both Gustafson and nutrition professor Marion Nestle are turned off by the reality television flourishes of Oliver's show, but they say the campaign itself is a good one. Nestle, writing at The Atlantic, argues viewers should "cut him some slack for what he is up against: USDA rules that make cooking too expensive for school budgets, entrenched negative attitudes, widespread cluelessness about dietary principles as well as what food is and how to cook it, and kids who think it is entirely normal to eat pizza for breakfast and chicken nuggets for lunch, neither with a knife and fork." The nutrition expert says "Oliver is going about addressing these barriers in exactly the right way." She goes on to list the four "key elements for getting decent food into schools."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.