I caught the first episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution last night (full episodes available online here). I like Jamie Oliver — I realize he grates on some folks, but he’s got great energy, and unlike a lot of “foodies” he seems genuinely concerned for the well being of people who don’t eat in fancy restaurants, for kids, and for lost adolescents. His enthusiasm, and his perennial conviction that cooking “from scratch” is a skill that anyone can learn, and that by learning and practicing it we can improve the quality not only of our meals, but our health and well-being, is something I’ve always appreciated. (And I have some serious envy for his outdoor oven he featured in his show, Jamie at Home.)
At any rate, I thought there were a couple of things worth mentioning. First of all, the school he invaded has a whole crew of lunch ladies, who actually know how to cook, and who have real kitchen equipment: ovens, and stovetops in particular. As many of us who are interested in school lunches are learning, this has become increasingly rare in American schools, most of which don’t have full staffs of people who actually have cooking skills, and even more of which only have microwaves and steam tables. So he’s got one leg up on that front — that he’s dealing with some truculence is less surprising. It’s standard “reality show” fare — set up a “villan” at the beginning, who must be vanquished by the end. That part I found really tedious. Seems to me that with a pep talk at the beginning, pointing out how far ahead of most other schools they already are, and some genuine work to bring them aboard, a lot more could have been accomplished. If he’d woo’ed the lunch ladies the way he woo’ed that nice overweight mom and her kids, the whole project might have been off to a different start.
I also felt like the chicken-vs.-pizza cookoff at the beginning was unnecessary. Oliver did this experiment already in England. He knows going in that the kids will almost always prefer the food they know, processed, salty, sweet pizza or chicken nuggets to the unfamiliar tastes and textures of real food. So why not build on what he did in England, instead of doing it all over again — perhaps the assumption was that referencing the English version of the show would alienate American audiences. Seems sort of odd to me, but then again, I don’t create reality shows.
The other avoidable mishap was not taking a little more care with people’s feelings. Surely it can’t be any big secret that Appalachia has a proud history of repelling invaders? That they’re used to being the butt of the joke, and that repeating over and over again that they’re the “unhealthiest” (code for fattest) people in America might not be the most useful way to get through to them. I don’t know, the confrontational aspects of the show just felt off to me. Oliver has always struck me as sort of a sweetheart, one who is passionate about is cause, but who knows better than to rub people’s faces in their shortcomings. So why start the whole project off on such a confrontational note?
Or did they? It might just be the editing. At any rate, it’s a great opportunity to bring the dismal state of most school food to the attention of more people, and I’m sure by the end of the six-episode series, we’ll have scenes of people happily eating and cooking real food. Who knows? Jamie might even bring the lunch ladies around.