Back in 2010, British chef Jamie Oliver had a reality show on ABC, Food Revolution, which chronicled his attempt to improve the school food in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington had just been named “the unhealthiest city in America,” and Oliver, a vocal critic of the unhealthy school food in his native England, was determined to help Huntington’s kids by bringing fresh, scratch-cooked meals to their school cafeterias.
This blog wasn’t even a twinkle in my eye back then, but I do vividly remember watching the show and sharing Oliver’s disgust for what looked like pretty horrible school food in Huntington. And Oliver pulled no punches in expressing that disgust on camera, along with his frustration with the seemingly intransigent, ignorant school food workers who didn’t share his vision. Watching the show that year was a satisfying wallow in righteous indignation, and I remember wistfully hoping that Oliver would next come to my district, Houston ISD, and set things right.
But when the next season of Food Revolution rolled around in 2011, I was a very different viewer. By then I’d become involved in school food reform in Houston and had a much better understanding of how school lunch programs operate. I’d also started The Lunch Tray the prior year, and after each episode of that second season of Food Revolution (covering Oliver’s reform efforts in Los Angeles USD), I offered TLT readers a recap and my thoughts. While I welcomed all the attention Oliver was bringing to school food reform, I was often quite critical of the show, either because Oliver was hiding the ball from viewers in some fashion or because his filming techniques unfairly made LAUSD officials look like buffoons or villains – or both.
I also shared the views of other experts, including Dana Woldow, who spent years improving the school food in her own district, San Francisco USD. Here was Woldow’s dead-on assessment of that first season of Food Revolution in Huntington, which sums up very well the flaws in Oliver’s approach:
He [attempted to reform school food] not by railing against government underfunding of the school meal program – which might be boring – but by shaming the lunch ladies. He didn’t bother explaining that school meal programs which violate any of the myriad complex USDA regulations can lose their government funding, while still being required to feed low income students – which would be boring – but instead attacked the school nutrition director. And he never revealed that the school’s cafeteria budget couldn’t cover the cost of his healthier menu – because it was expensive, requiring both extra labor and higher priced ingredients – so the TV production company just quietly paid those costs.
But what did that prove – that someone operating completely outside the constraints of a regular school meal program (financial, regulatory, and social) can do things differently than someone who is forced to stay on budget and follow the rules?
Given all this, I was very interested to read yesterday a new Huffington Post Highline piece by Jane Black, a food and food politics writer whom I’ve long admired. After Oliver’s film crew packed up in Huntington, Black became interested in what happened next and she’s spent considerable time in the city ever since. Her new HuffPo piece, “Revenge of the Lunch Lady,” focuses specifically on Rhonda McCoy, the Huntington school food director who’d been so negatively portrayed in Food Revolution’s first season. Black’s article tells the real story of Huntington’s school food – including the fact that, thanks to McCoy’s efforts, the district’s school meals were actually ahead of the national curve well before Oliver showed up. It also addresses the same concerns noted by Woldow, which made Oliver’s show misleading to viewers in some key respects.
But the main reason why I recommend reading Black’s piece is because it so perfectly captures the challenges faced by all school food departments around the country. Just to serve better-than-average meals, school food directors have to swim upstream against a system that thwarts them at every turn, from underfunded food budgets, a lack of kitchen infrastructure and constant worry that kids will reject healthier food and drop out of the program in droves. Only those directors with an unusual degree of ingenuity, patience and dedication can pull it off, which means most kids around the country still lose out. Black’s piece also discusses current Republican-led efforts to gut the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which has been a boon to underprivileged kids reliant on school meals and to the districts that serve them. (More on the CEP here.)
I hope you’ll take a moment to read Black’s piece, and then let me know what you think in a comment below.
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