Oliver's Real Revolution: Reforming Food Choice

The latest episode of the Naked Chef's show teaches that kids aren't responsible for choosing what they eat. Schools are.



This week's episode of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" brought new meaning to the battle over freedom of choice. It begins with the Naked Chef's discussion of why he chose to stop cooking in the nude ("'cause it will end in tears") and ends with a once-confrontational food service worker choosing to believe that Oliver's efforts in her school are well-intentioned.

In the intervening minutes, we see Oliver attempt to persuade the Huntington, West Virginia health-care bigwigs to fund his cooking classes, try to convince the local high school students to choose his "cooked-with-love" fare, and struggle to dissuade the food service director from serving sugar-laden flavored milk. By the time the show is over, there are so many choices to be made that the episode resembles a menu in a Greek diner.

Still, the decisions faced by the supporting characters in Oliver's escapade are worth dissecting, if for no other reason than they are virtually identical to the choices faced by so many others in the American school food arena every single day.

Early in the episode, Oliver approaches top administrators of three area medical facilities, asking them to fund the culinary training courses necessary for Huntington's school food service workers to learn to prepare healthy, cooked-from-scratch meals safely and affordably. "I want you to own this," Oliver pleads. Shamefully, all three administrators are so concerned that the national airing of "Food Revolution" could stunt economic growth in their hamlet that they appeared to forget that a truly healthy economy requires healthy people. In defense of their indefensible resistance, the most corpulent of Oliver's three antagonists illogically—and ironically—chooses that moment to declare, "We know there is a stigma associated with being overweight." In Oliver's words, "Dude, you're missin' the whole point."

Convinced that it is the only way he will be able to secure the funding he needs, Oliver attends a high school assembly and tells the budding scholars that he made a mistake weeks earlier when he took away their French fries. His apology is met with enthusiastic cheers as he promises to allow teens to choose for themselves what they eat for lunch.

But in doing so, Oliver ignores the fact that high school students are still kids—kids who require the wisdom, experience, and guidance of adults charged with their supervision and education. This comes as a shock to no one in the educational field who makes unpopular decisions daily—without apology.

Of course, after the requisite made-for-television suspense and spaghetti western soundtrack, the students in Huntington predictably and unanimously choose Oliver's healthy scratch-cooked school meals over the highly processed fare that they had been raised to consider food. But the happy (and, in my experience, not uncommon) result does not obviate the need to ask why responsible adults would place children directly in harm's way in the cafeteria when great care is habitually taken elsewhere on school grounds to avoid danger. Do coaches give kids the choice between playing in the gymnasium and playing in traffic? Do principals put beer kegs next to the water fountains in the school hallways? Do teachers allow teens in English class to read porn magazines in lieu of the classics?

This line of questioning brings us to another major storyline in this week's episode. In it, Oliver is outraged that the school district's food service director, Rhonda McCoy, has chosen to continue serving flavored milk. Oliver fervently argues that flavored milk "has more sugar in it than soda." Yet McCoy, supported by the school principal and haplessly citing "The Office of Child Nutrition," claims that because she is required to serve "a variety of milks," she needs special dispensation to stop serving flavored milk.

As has happened in at least one previous episode, McCoy appears to lack a full understanding of the rules she is required to follow in operating her food service department. To be sure, the regulations governing school meals are extremely convoluted and often incomprehensible. Nevertheless, it is clear that "a variety of milks" can include any two of skim, 1-percent, 2-percent, and whole, unflavored milk, and that no special permission is required to stop serving flavored milk.

Generally speaking, there are 22 to 24 grams of sugar in a typical eight-ounce serving of flavored milk—10 to 12 more grams of added sugars than in a comparable serving of unflavored milk (of equal fat content). There are four grams of sugar per teaspoon, and approximately 115 teaspoons of sugar per pound. Thus, a child who drinks flavored milk every day for lunch consumes 1800 to 2160 more grams of sugar per 180-day school year than a child who drinks an equal amount of unflavored milk. That's 3.9 to 4.7 pounds of added sugars. And, of course, children who drink flavored milk for both breakfast and lunch consume twice that amount.

During a presentation about school food reform that I once gave to an audience of about 200 people, several parents were alarmed that their children's "right to chicken nuggets and chocolate milk" could be taken away. My explanation—that the food service department was focused on the long-term best interests of their children—was falling flat, when a 30-something father stood up and shouted, "I want healthy food in the schools and I want my kid to have two choices: take it or leave it." Or, as Oliver puts it, "We should give children what they should get. They'll get used to it."

Maybe, as is so often the case, it comes down to little more than semantics. While we have long chosen to refer to schools as "institutions of learning," this designation places the onus for what happens during the school day squarely on the shoulders of the students—the intended beneficiaries of the educational process. Perhaps if we collectively choose to call schools "institutions of teaching," we could restore the responsibility for what happens in those once-venerated halls to those who should be accountable: the adults who need to heed Oliver's advice—before it's too late.