Call it "Jamie Oliver vs. the Los Angeles Unified School District."
Last year, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution was honestly educational, compelling television. In last night's premiere, the drama surrounding the show nearly threatened to overshadow the needed message. Or was that a message of its own?
I'm not what you would call a "health nut." My general attitude toward food is that I don't want to become someone who has to think so much about what I'm eating that I don't enjoy it anymore. And I think this is hilarious. So I'm not writing this entry to rhapsodize about the celebrity chef's program, because I'm no food expert.
But whether or not you believe in what Jamie Oliver is doing, it's important that he even has the chance to present his message. I applaud ABC for giving airtime to a program that is informative and thought-provoking. It's great that this program is on mainstream network TV and not tucked away on PBS or the Food Network; no offense to either channel, but with the backing of a major network, that's all the more exposure. Especially as we've just heard that MTV has green-lit not one but two spinoffs from Jersey Shore, it's some glimmer of hope for the TV landscape.
In the first episode, Jamie didn't have much time to actually inform us about what goes into our food. We were told how the garbage parts of beef are washed in ammonia and then that ends up going into our school lunches. And we got to see how school-age children consume far more sugar than is healthy just in their milk within an average school week. (Jamie's dislike of flavored milk, which is banned in Europe, was brought up again.) One parent mentions an elementary school with an 80% obesity rate. Like last season, Food Revolution presents some pretty scary facts in fairly dramatic fashion.
But what's almost more shocking, and what makes up the bulk of the episode, is his uphill battle with the Los Angeles Unified School District, just to get his foot in the door. As someone who was born and raised in the area, it's sad to watch. The natural question is what are they so scared of? As the program unfolds, the answer is so painfully obvious: most of the people we get to meet are resistant to change, which makes them defensive, angry, and even a bit rude.
At one point in the episode, Jamie meets with a local fast food proprietor, but the conversation is less than productive. The man doesn't want to take anything off the menu, and is concerned about different ingredients translating to rising costs. In fact, he gets angry. While I don't understand the anger, I do get what motivates it; he's looking out for the success of his business, which supports his family. If he changes the menu too much, or charges too much, or has to pay more for product, he risks losing money. This isn't a brand-name fast food joint; it's a small business that could easily sink, and with it the man's livelihood. But I give him a lot of credit for being willing to give Jamie a chance. He's at least more open-minded than the people in power.
The really infuriating part comes when Jamie is forced to attend an LAUSD board meeting. The only reason he's there at all is because the superintendent wouldn't agree to meet him. He has to wait for the "public comments" portion of the agenda to make himself heard. At that point, he's told that the man in charge of food services will talk to him. Yet when the meeting adjourns and said meeting is supposed to take place, he's instead approached by a district "director of communications" who tells him that he must submit information to the superintendent (whose name placard is conveniently blurred out - perhaps he fears public backlash now that this has aired?) before he can meet the food services chief. As Jamie himself says, it's a "big, massive, political" middle finger. It's lying to his face. It's downright disrespectful. And it's disappointing to see public officials behaving so poorly.
Although I'm still as guilty of eating fast food and probably all sorts of nasty things I don't want to know about as anyone, I have a soft spot for this show, and here's why: I'm an adult. I have the choice to eat whatever I want, and the maturity to face the consequences. If I end up clogging my arteries because I love bacon (and I do love bacon, probably about as much as Jim Gaffigan), that's on me. Children don't have the knowledge to make that choice (if they even get a choice). First and foremost, the responsibility lies with their parents, who have to look out for them and be aware of what their kids are eating. But when the kids are at school, someone has to look out for them there, too. We trust our schools to educate our kids on health, so I don't think it's too much to ask for them to practice what they preach and offer healthier foods as well. My mother packed my lunch every day when I was in grade school, and now that I've seen what goes into school lunches thanks to this show, all I can say is bless her for it. I had no idea at the time, but she was looking out for my health and nutrition.
Last year, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution was informative and even shocking at times. The program itself looks to be more of the same. Even if you don't have kids, or aren't all that interested in food, I encourage you to take a look, because you're going to learn things you probably would never know otherwise. I'm glad to see it back on the air.
I sincerely hope, however, that the drama and debacle surrounding the show doesn't overshadow or limit it. I'd hate to see the message lost somewhere in red tape and politics. Whatever your belief on the subject matter, I think we can all agree that it's nice to have one show that's trying to give us something in a landscape of so many nonfiction programs that don't contribute anything to our lives at all.
Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution airs Tuesday nights at 8 PM ET/PT on ABC.