By Peter Smith
Jamie Oliver is talking a mile a minute. He’s on a friend’s borrowed mobile phone, en route to a theater performance starring one of his four kids. “I’ve got a lot of things going on,” he says. It’s something of an understatement.
Over the past month, Oliver has written a cookbook on British food; developed new locations for Jamie’s Italian, a rustic Italian chain he co-owns; and worked out the details for another restaurant concept called Union Jacks, all while promoting the campaign that launched his stateside presence into prime time on ABC, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.
In the glossy, glistening world of celebrity chefs, the 36-year-old cook stands out for doing well by doing good. His televised mission for changing the world revolves around teaching us where our food comes from, how to cook it from scratch and how healthy eating can pay off in the long run.
“The nature of the food revolution affects how long or short you live on this planet, how enjoyable it is while you’re here, how creative you are, how well you do in school, what you look like and what your sex life is like,” Oliver says. “Ultimately, it’s about cooking and inspiring people to have a go at learning to cook.”
Earlier this year, the hyperkinetic chef wrapped up his second—and final—season of his show at Los Angeles Unified School District, or rather, at one prep school in LA, since the school district revoked his filming permit. A quick highlight reel of the kitchen stunts performed on the show: One, fill a washing machine with ground beef and ammonia to teach us how “pink slime” makes its way into hamburgers; two, pump a school bus full of sugar to demonstrate the eye-opening amount of sugar in flavored milk; and, three, teach a math class, wherein kids who take a candy bar will have to walk 11 laps around a track wearing 20- and 30-pound backpacks to understand the implications of snacking and weight gain.
“This kind of TV is not commercial,” Oliver says. “It’s lucky to even be on network. There’s a lot of pressure for us to be informative, shocking and also clear—because quite a lot of health policy is really [bleeping] boring.”
In April, one of his efforts paid off. The LAUSD’s new superintendent announced the district would stop serving strawberry- and chocolate-flavored milk. Michael Pollan, the nation’s unofficial food-guru-in-chief, responded by sending out this message to his 78,758 followers on Twitter: “Kudos to Jamie Oliver on this one.”
The concern about what we feed our children isn’t confined to Los Angeles, and his small nagging pursuits shouldn’t be seen, as Oliver put it in one episode, merely as “a little rash on their crotch.” Given his small victories, he’s intent of delivering on the show’s premise: If he could change LA, maybe he could change the world.
“Right now, children are expected to have a shorter life span than their parents,” Oliver says. “That doesn’t sound normal. Any logical person would say, ‘Give it up. America’s never going to change.’ But I do look at things very differently.”
Across the United States, a broader food revolution has been brewing since 1966, when a group of radicals, the San Francisco Diggers, doled out soup in Golden Gate Park under the vague, druggy pretense of expanding everyone’s frame of reference. Food has always served as a vehicle for moral and spiritual guidance, but the so-called “countercuisine” distilled environmental, social and political issues into the personal choice of eating. It’s arguably the most enduring legacy of the counterculture. Take a look around: Co-ops evolved into Whole Foods Markets. Organic produce, once confined to the fringe, is now found at Wal-Mart. Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley is just one of thousands of restaurants touting its farm-to-table authority. Even the White House has a garden.
Jamie Oliver was born in the midst of this revolution, so to speak, in 1975, in Essex, England. He left high school at 16 and was discovered by a BBC film crew working the line at London’s River Café. Oliver went on to juggle inside the three-ring circus of dump-and-stir television shows and once sang a reggae tune about concocting lamb curry, but he moved well beyond entertainment in 2005 with Channel 4’s Jamie’s School Dinners.
“We had nutritional standards for dog food in Save-A-Lots, but we had no nutritional standards for kids in schools, and that’s our future of our country,” Oliver says. “That was an ‘aha!’ moment. I realized that celebrity chefs and all the [bleep] that goes with it, it’s not just about dancing around and selling books and going to all these incredible places. If there’s a problem, an issue, and you feel passionate about it, you should be fighting tooth and nail to broadcast it. So when I did School Dinners, I didn’t ask anyone. I said, ‘I’m doing this. I’ve been shooting for two weeks, do you want to do this because this is what I’m doing?’”
The four-part documentary lead to a substantial overhaul of school lunches and a ban on junk in vending machines. Even the British Medical Journal hailed the show, saying, “Jamie Oliver has done more for the public health of our children than a corduroy army of health promotion workers or a £100m Saatchi & Saatchi campaign.”
In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the U.S. army of health promotion—released data indicating that about one in every three Americans was obese, and suggesting that just north of the Southern Stroke Belt lay a town where more than half of the residents belonged to this growing demographic. Two years later, after an unsuccessful bid to find an American chef to expand his crusade in the states, Oliver and his film crew parachuted in to Huntington, West Virginia, intent on changing attitudes and waistlines.
Whether it was a typical British tradition of offering unsolicited critiques of America, or merely an unwelcome incursion in a place wary of outsiders with big ideas, the reception proved chilly, which, of course, made for good reality television. Being a Brit also proved helpful behind the scenes at the network. “When important people questioned me,” Oliver says, “I was able to say, ‘Well, that’s what I had as a kid. That’s what every country in Europe does. Why can’t we do it here?’ It’s important to be able to say, ‘Just because it’s normal, doesn’t mean it’s right, or it can’t change, or can’t be a lot better.’”
Today, Jamie’s Kitchen is called Huntington’s Kitchen, and it’s run by a local free health clinic. The anti-hunger organization Share Our Strength offers classes there for low-income residents. “What he’s done is tremendous,” says Jane Black, who’s writing a book with her husband Brent Cunningham about how the town is developing a healthier food culture. “He’s taken the power he’s accumulated and used it for good, but these kinds of changes need to happen at the dinner table, in school and at the grocery store every day. They need to come from specific communities. What people eat and what’s available is different everywhere, so now that everybody’s aware of it, the hard work still has to be done.”
Clearly, one show alone can’t reverse decades of confounding factors—the cup-holders engineered into our cars; drive-thru restaurants; our daily commutes and prolonged sitting at work; having overweight friends; the lights we leave on at night; eating too much inexpensive, always-available, high-calorie food that’s incredibly easy to digest; and all the other complex, interlocking factors linked to the rising rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Just as there is no single cause, there will be no single cure.
If there’s a litmus test for just how important food politics has become, it lies on the South Lawn of the White House, where First Lady Michelle Obama planted a garden at 1600 Pennsylvania for the first time since Eleanor Roosevelt. The garden is part of the Let’s Move campaign, which is on a mission to encourage physical activity, better food labeling and healthier eating in schools. To make the message even more palatable, Ms. Obama’s enlisted Beyoncé, singer and a one-time Pepsi spokeswoman, to become a sort of Jane Fonda for youth today. Her viral videos really make you want to dance.
“Let’s Move has been very helpful,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “Michelle Obama is very popular and has a high visibility. She has the bully pulpit. She’s working with administration staff on policy. She’s not just getting up and making speeches. Efforts like Jamie Oliver’s are useful, too, because they add to the buzz. Even if it doesn’t change policy, it makes it easier for groups like ours. The awareness lays the groundwork for change.”
On Capital Hill this year, health advocates successfully passed school lunch reform for the first time in 30 years (albeit one that may only add about six cents to most school lunches). The 2010 health care reform bill mandates that all chain restaurants post calorie counts on their menus. The CDC has dozens of projects nationwide measuring the effects its anti-obesity campaigns. Still, the amount spent by the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity and other nonprofits is dwarfed by advertising budgets of companies trying to sell us more food, whether it’s healthy or not.
For a food revolution to take hold in everyone’s kitchen, it’s going to take more than two school districts featured on two seasons of reality television. It’s going to take more than the $2.89 spent on making every single free school lunch taste good and provide good nutrition for all the nation’s students, too. For some kids, school lunches still offer better nutrition than what’s served at home, as Oliver suggested when he packed one family’s home with stacks and stacks of chili dogs, French fries, pizzas and breakfast donuts. Because what holds true for politics apparently holds true to television: It’s more feasible to critique school lunch than to tell parents that we’re not feeding kids well.
In the end, whether you’re Jamie Oliver running around in a peapod costume, shouting “Eat your vegetables!” or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, dressing up the country’s dietary recommendations in a colorful plate-shaped icon called MyPlate, all the efforts tend to run up against basic human biology. It’s not that we’re fat and lazy, it’s that we appear to have evolved to seek out, with the least amount of effort, the very foods wreaking havoc on our bodies.
At the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a research institute in West Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood, inside a building graced by a giant statue of a bronze nose, scientists are exploring the frontiers of smell and taste. Here, Julie Mennella has been looking into how children develop food preferences.
Because kids tend to eat what they like, and children prefer more intense sweet and salty flavors—probably an evolutionary mechanism to account for periods of rapid growth— there’s at least some explanation for why schools serve flavored milks and sweetened cereals. If that’s the bad news, the good news is that we can change these preferences by introducing a wide variety of healthy foods—even before children are born. “Before our first taste, we learn about the food choices of our mothers when we’re in utero,” Mennella says. “We learn from breast milk and from repeated exposure to food.”
Mennella has found, for example, that babies exposed to carrot juice before birth found the taste of carrots more acceptable at seven months, compared to those babies fed a more monotonous diet. Her research underscores the emotional potency of childhood, which instills vital lessons about when to eat, how to eat and who we are as a culture. “Jamie Oliver talks about teaching kids about food and how to feed yourself is as important as math and science,” she says. “It’s a learning process that builds on the familiar. With taste and liking particular foods, our sensory systems are incredibly open to learning during development.”
In other words, the revolution can be taught. Of all these necessary steps toward remaking a culture around readily available, healthy and competitively priced meals, Oliver’s biggest contribution to the zeitgeist may be in making food politics slightly entertaining. Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, though, is really only the start for his vision for transforming the way we eat.
The show has hit the road in Southern California with a mobile Food Revolution truck—full of plasma screens, kitchen stations and room for about 40 students. Along with the American Heart Association, he hopes to build teaching kitchens in Dallas, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles and New York. At the end of the final show, which wrapped up in late June, Oliver gave audiences a pep talk: “The battle is not won. The power lies with you…. It’s not just about me. We’ve all got to start stirring the pot, and we’ve all got to start expecting more.”
After all, we shouldn’t expect this revolution to be televised. At the very least, Oliver hopes his message will stir up some much needed skepticism. “If the public keeps questioning things, asking things, expecting more—whether it’s asking about school food or asking where meat comes from at the drive-through—when people start asking things, stuff starts to change.”
Originally published in Delta Sky magazine, August 2011.