I was really looking forward to watching this show, where Britain’s celebrity “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver promises to re-make the cafeteria food in Huntington, W Va. which was recently names as the most unhealthy city in America based on its rates of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and mortality. Jamie’s mission is to get fresh, from-scratch foods with healthy ingredients into the town’s school lunches. The program documents his many struggles in accomplishing this goal, which in the first episode (which aired last night) included the strong-willed school cooks, the principal, the food budget, the school kids’ taste buds, and the completely illogical USDA school food requirements.
In my opinion the show did not disappoint, and I highly recommend watching it, for so many reasons. Perhaps reason #1 is that with very few exceptions school food is the same all over the country. If you are a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, friend, or colleague of anyone with school children you will get an enlightening view into what our kids are being fed on a daily basis at school. Pizza for breakfast, chicken nuggets, fries (which meet USDA criteria for a vegetable), and flourescent colored strawberry milk are just a few tantilizing menu items. I know enough to understand that most of these heavily processed foods have scary, unnatural, and dangerous ingredients, but even I am shocked at some things. For example, Fast Food Nation found that one strawberry milk has 59 ingredients, most of which are chemicals and “E” words (and no actually strawberries). Chicken nuggets can be less than 30% actual chicken (in England one study found 16% – which includes skin), and the process that is used to make them is beyond frightening. I’m not even going to go into that here. I watched a clip of Jamie’s show online and freeze framed a shot of ingredients on the chix nuggets box – here are a few of the contents: sodium benzoate, caramel color, vegetable protein product, pyridoxine hydrochloride, partially hydrogenated soybean oil (read: trans fat), disodium guanylate, and sodium phosphate. And that’s just what I could read, based on the 50% of the label in the shot. Some of these ingredeints are fillers (i.e. misc vegetable protein), some are chemical preservatives, and some are artificial flavors that the nuggets need to taste like anything. MSG anyone? Perhaps the most disturbing indicator of the food quality is that the actual label for the product reads: “Meat/Meat-Alternative for Child”. That alone speaks volumes about the quality of the content, and there’s certainly some sad irony in the “for child” part of the label.
Jamie states that one of his goals is to make us angry about this sad food reality. That serves a purpose, but the show also portrays what we’re up against, which will be helpful for any activist looking to initiate some change in their local district. I like and appreciate that Jamie is not afraid to call out the powers that be – the food and fast food industries, the USDA, and our own tendency for reluctance to change. These are substantial powers, and 2/3 have large budgets and affinities for lawsuits. I’m a little scared for him, honestly.
I will keep watching, and hoping for a positive conclusion. If there are lessons that we can learn from this show and then pass them on to our own school systems, wouldn’t it be great? Think of all the millions of little lives that can be improved. We are in a day and age where type II diabetes is striking younger and younger, people in their 20s are experiencing heart disease, and kids’ life expectancy is less than their parents, all due to a crap (gov’t sponsored!) diet. I sincerely hope that this show can pioneer a process for wide-spread change, and can’t wait to see the rest of the season.
To sign a petition supporting Jamie’s efforts, go here: http://www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/jamies-food-revolution/petition