When I was invited to blog about Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" for the Atlantic Food Channel, my initial reaction was that I just didn't have the time. As a food systems consultant who specializes in school food reform, I fly nearly 200,000 miles a year working for foundations and schools that are trying to move school meal programs away from simulated food and toward real food, i.e. scratch-cooked meals using fresh, whole ingredients. In short, my job is to do exactly what Chef Oliver is trying to do in Huntington, West Virginia, albeit with fewer cameras and "made-for-TV" theatrics. Like Oliver, I bring with me my experience and training as a professional chef. In addition, I view the process through the lens of my first career as an attorney who specialized in regulatory law.
What finally prodded me to accept the offer were the surprisingly negative comments about Oliver's show made by my contemporaries in the food systems world. In the past two weeks, I have been shocked that so many of my colleagues have become preoccupied with who is getting—or who is taking—credit for waking the country up to the catastrophe that is school food. Those of us who are truly concerned about the welfare of America's children, health care system, and food supply should be grateful that long-awaited and much-needed attention to what has become at best a national embarrassment, and at worst a national crisis, has finally arrived. The revolution will be televised.
My assignment is to critique each episode and describe what the scenes in it would be like in other school districts around the county. In sum, my role is to reveal just how close to reality this reality show really is.
Where to begin? Lunch ladies who dress like the love children of fast-food workers and nurses' aides? A high-school cafeteria that serves nothing but pizza, fries, spaghetti, and iceberg lettuce in the salad bar? A kitchen manager who drinks soda in the kitchen and seemingly spends more time complaining than working? Adults who think students won't eat lunch if the meal doesn't come with fries? A food service director with a permanent smirk on her face who appears to hope the whole experiment fails?
Of course, there's more. Lots, lots more. I'll cut to the chase: yes. These scenes are tragically ubiquitous in our nation's public school system.
But they're not universal. Thankfully, there is an increasing number of courageous American lunch ladies who recognize that USDA guidelines are the insidious result of corporate lobbying and not just a standard to be met for federal funding.
Most of these hardworking and little-recognized frontrunners in the world of school food reform didn't become leaders by having a world renowned professional chef walk into their kitchen in chef's whites. Most of them became leaders by going through culinary—not nutrition—training programs, the very training the Huntington food service director said was too expensive for her district to afford. Culinary training that teaches lunch ladies—and men—how to use and maintain knives, how to handle raw meat products safely, how to calculate recipe extensions and food cost, and, yes, even how to dress like the professional cooks we expect them to become and our children desperately need them to be.
I suspect Oliver would have been greeted more warmly if he had taken off his chef's jacket and put it on the combative kitchen manager when they were first introduced. I believe he would have met less resistance had he not set himself up to compete with the lunch ladies he was trying to help in the first episode. I know from experience that if he had secured the funding for the culinary training before he publicly criticized the school's existing protocols, the Huntington lunch ladies would have more readily embraced what he had to say.
I also suspect that Oliver will ultimately be successful on some level, if not in Huntington, then in countless other American school districts. A food service director with whom I have worked periodically over the past year recently wrote me the following about Oliver's show:
Watching the Food Revolution has opened my eyes to see what I must have been like when you first came to [my district]. I know I came off defensive and rebellious, just like some of the cooks in the TV program. When the [food service] director came into the meeting with Jamie loaded with her Federal Regulation Books, I nearly fell off the chair laughing. Boy was that me a year ago or what!
And one more thing. I spent all of last week teaching an intensive culinary class to 24 food service workers and directors. After reading how several snarky commentators derided Oliver for calling food service workers "lunch ladies," I asked my students if they took offense to the term. Not one did. Not even the four men among them. One person, a cheerful woman named Julie, said, "Technically, that's what we are. But I like to refer to us as 'lunch teachers.'"
From now on, I'll be referring to them that way, too.