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What Would Jamie Do?

What Would Jamie Do?

Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" treats a serious subject, but turns it into reality show spectacle.

On March 21, Americans with an interest in either child nutrition or reality TV (or both) got the chance to view the first installment of “Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution,” a stunt-driven, 21st century moral tale that will run as a series on ABC in coming weeks. If you missed it, here's a handy synopsis:


Our Hero: Thracian Gadiator and Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver, outfitted in stylish, everyman, faux-casual clothing, festooned with a spotless working-class kitchen apron and sporting his signature, “I want to be the polite English guy” accent, ready to do combat with the plebes and school food of Huntington, WV (pop 50,000).

The Audience: The sedentary, 21st century, reality show-watching American public. [note to videographer: Do not pan to TV tables with snacks or to upper-middle class family room trappings. Focus tightly on self-righteous or nodding faces, shocked looks, etc.]

The Enemy: The status quo in the “unhealthiest city in America,” as certified by U.S. government statisticians. Its facilitators: an apparently inertial school nutrition department, a “Don't Tell Us What to Eat” community mentality and parents who apparently have never read a nutrition label in their lives.

The Victim: “The Future of America,” Huntington's school-age children, portrayed as fresh food innocents, weaned on pizza pies and pop, and just waiting for their formative minds to be enlightened by the hyperbolic antics and nutrition and culinary lessons of our visiting, British-born Hero.

The camera opens on the vast visual expanse of the modern colosseum: a 52-inch, high-definition plasma TV screen. Fast cuts and dissolves juxtapose 5-7 second sound bites and teaser vignettes: Jamie doing verbal battle with a surly local radio DJ who expresses a community's resentment at this do-gooding outsider … Jamie confronting a class of first grade students who can't identify a cluster of vine-ripened tomatoes … Jamie trashing the contents of a home freezer packed with pizzas…cut to black, and then…

VOG (Voice of God) introduces Our Hero and His Challenge:

“In a place where nearly half the adults are considered obese and the incidence of heart disease and diabetes leads the nation … one man will try to save 50,000 livesJAMIE OLIVER…

This show's buildup and video editing certainly tops that given Jay Leno's introduction each night. And, given Aristotle's dictum that true art both entertains and instructs, I have to acknowledge that its premise and execution rises far above the standards set by TV brethren like “The Bachelor,” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Still, one has to wonder how many thousands of minutes of footage were shot to come up with the five-second sound bite clips and interspersed morality lectures that form the basis of its narrative. And at what the likelihood is that Chef Oliver will have any lasting impact on the lifestyles of Huntington.

Just the same (as is typically the case in the scripts of such shows), we are likely to see many of the characters introduced so far become gratuitously appreciative of his message and advice before the last episode in the series concludes.

As the readers of this magazine only too well understand, the issue of obesity in America, and the role nutrition plays in school and school meals, are serious ones. And it is not to say that many schools shouldn't work more intently to introduce whole and fresher foods and stronger nutrition profiles into their menus. But it is hard for me to believe that the most constructive way to address this issue is to turn what is essentially a social problem into entertainment spectacle.

Also, as one who has looked closely at many of the complex dynamics and constraints that do affect school nutrition in the U.S., I began to wonder what Jamie would do if …

…he found that nearly two thirds of the $2.78 available to finance each of his meals had been allocated by large city union contracts and political mandates to cover labor costs, leaving less than a dollar to pay for the food in USDA-compliant lunches…

…it turned out that after the showtime novelty wears off, his school kids chose to disdain his creations, turning instead to high-calorie alternatives smuggled in from outside, to local “open campus” fast food joints or to snack items sold by entrpreneurial young peers…

…he discovered himself up against vending and snack revenue-addicted principals, athletic directors and school boards who not so discreetly reminded him that his employment contract was “at will…”

…he was faced with producing USDA-compliant meals at locations that lacked adequate refrigerated storage, cooking equipment and skilled labor to produce fresh food cooked “his way,” or dining facilities and lunch schedules suitable for serving it…

For the many directors in our readership who do face such challenges, and for others who are simply focused on truly transforming and improving our school food programs, I am afraid the answers are not likely to be forthcoming by simply asking, “What would Jamie do?”

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