Some “Food Revolution” Back Story from a TLT Reader

by Bettina Elias Siegel on June 29, 2011

I have to say I’m pretty happy that Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” series concluded last week, not because I didn’t enjoy watching the show but because writing up my recap and review each week was a daunting (if entirely self-imposed) task.    I certainly didn’t expect to be writing about J.O. again so soon, and you, too, might be crying “uncle” when it comes to another Food Revolution post.

However, this morning I found two new comments on the blog left by a reader named Dana — whom, I should mention at the outset, is not Dana Woldow, the San Francisco school food reformer who often comments here and is no great fan of Jamie.   This other Dana shared quite a few interesting links pertaining to the show, and for those of you who were getting down into the Food Rev weeds with me, you might find them interesting.

For one thing, I’d speculated in my last recap and review that the much-lauded “new menu” for which Jamie seems to take credit in the season finale was actually in the works well before Jamie’s arrival in L.A.  It turns out my speculation was correct — Dana shares a letter to LAUSD parents from outgoing superintendent Ray Cortines (before Jamie’s revolution began) which makes specific mention of these new menu items.  You can read that letter here.

Dana also shared a recent (June 16th) cover story from L.A. Weekly entitled, “Why Los Angeles Schoolkids Get Lousy Meals,”  which I found eerily reminiscent of some of the problems we discuss on Houston ISD’s Food Services Parent Advisory Committee.  The piece doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions, but I thought it did a great job of capturing the current, entrenched problems in school food, at least in large, urban districts like L.A. and Houston.   (L.A. Weekly chose not to quote Jamie Oliver in that piece but instead published a companion piece of nothing but twelve quotes from Jamie, some of them quite colorful.  Dana shared that, too – it’s here.)

Finally, Dana provided a link to this piece, “How TV Superchef Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Revolution’ Flunked Out,” which I’d read before and have even cited on the blog, but which I hadn’t re-read in full in a while.  It’s a trenchant, well-researched critique of the show’s first season by Arun Gupta, and as I read it again this morning — with my own Jamie Oliver season two critiques fresh in my mind — I was nodding vigorously over my cup of coffee.  I think it is just dead on in laying bare the serious flaws in Jamie’s reality TV approach to school food reform, and in outlining the real causes of bad school meals — issues Jamie basically ignored both this season and last.

What’s the upshot of all of this information?  Just a reminder that school food reform is a highly complex, multi-faceted issue (or, to quote Jamie in last week’s episode, a “beastie”) that unfortunately isn’t susceptible to a quick and easy fix pre-packaged for television viewing.

Thanks to Dana for sharing all these links with us!

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Dana Woldow June 29, 2011 at 10:31 am

Here’s some more back story on Jamie’s LA Adventure:
http://tinyurl.com/3sax3sp

One school food advocate told the reporter “Oliver took a decidedly antagonist approach to working with the the rest of LAUSD’s top officials, even some who might have been sympathetic.

“That’s left some board members peeved at her for working with the controversial celebrity chef.

““Oh yeah. There is board member I am afraid to call right now who I had a good relationship with who was definitely on our side.””

Another advocate runs a community garden.
“So when Scorza met with Oliver and his producers, he hoped they’d help him bring more fresh produce to the neighborhood.

““And they said, you know, we want organizations at the table who can help us work on this sugary milk issue. And we were saying look, this is not the issue that is the most important thing and the most pressing issue in our community.”

“Scorza says that’s a problem when dealing with organizers and producers who aren’t living in communities like his.

““They don’t listen to the people who live here,” he says.”

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Amanda June 29, 2011 at 10:49 am

I did not read Dana’s article in entirety, but I’m certainly not shocked at how misleading parts of the show are.

Despite that, I’m still a fan. I’m a fan because I think it opens up the doors to parents who would never consider school lunch issues otherwise maybe will after seeing the Food Revolution. True, it could have been done much, much better. But I still see the goal to be parents looking at what their kids are eating– in school, and out– and maybe thinking a little bit more about what is being offered up to their children. And perhaps considering what is being put on family dinner plates at home.

I’m also a fan of bloggers like you and Dana that push parents to dissect school lunch reform a bit more and think about what goes into the problem so real solutions might be found. This, like the majority of problems in life, is not a simple problem and therefore, will not be solved by simple solutions.

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Bettina Elias Siegel June 30, 2011 at 7:48 am

Amanda – thanks for the kind words for bloggers! :-)

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Brad June 29, 2011 at 11:06 am

Yep, complex and reality TV != reality. Le sigh. I can only hope he will NOT be back for a season 3.

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Bettina Elias Siegel June 30, 2011 at 7:47 am

Brad – I’ll be curious to see if the show returns. The thing is, despite all my carping, I do like the show and the overall principles it stands for, so I’d be glad to watch a Season 3 (although reviewing the show does take a lot of time!)

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Bri June 29, 2011 at 11:08 am

Not to beat a dead horse, but…well, heck, I’m going to.
There are many sides to every story, and just reading the district-wide letter from Ramon Cortines regarding JO and the new LAUSD menu is enough to add some fuel to my fire about Jamie. As I’ve said before, many times, I really respect and admire JO and think he’s doing some very good things — but this season, he fell far short in many telling ways.
Mr. Cortines’ letter asserts that Jamie was asked to provide some documentation to the school of what he would do — a detailed plan of action. Jamie did not. From working with school districts for several years in a variety of capacities, I know that this detailed plan of action is something that would be required of almost ANY outsider coming in to work with the school and students, especially if that outsider happens to have a HUGE media presence. It was a reasonable request that could easily have been answered.
Mr. Cortines also says that he invited JO to use the budget and guidelines the school works with to craft and propose a 3-week menu cycle. This seems like something JO should have jumped at the chance to do. Unfortunately, Jamie also did not provide this menu.
Mr. Cortines shows that Jamie was invited to be a participating member of the school food committee, as long as he did so without cameras. Jamie did not accept the invitation.
So…JO gets blustery about wanting to improve things, and rants about how he has gotten no chance to do so; but the reality is that some very simple and concrete opportunities were offered to him, and he chose not to follow up because he was asked to do so off camera? Bad, bad move, Jamie. Ever think that maybe, just maybe, if you’d done the things Mr. Cortines asked of you, you’d have gradually a) achieved some of the improvements you say you so desperately wanted; and b) earned enough trust and respect from the district to possibly get some filming rights later in the game?
This just reinforces my sense that Jamie approached this season with a “my way or the highway” sensibility, and was willing to set aside his actual mission of school food reform in order to make a more dramatic television show. It makes me sad to think that he could have done a significant amount of good, but squandered those chances.

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Bettina Elias Siegel June 30, 2011 at 7:46 am

Right! You get the sense that there was simply no patience on the part of Jamie or his team to earn the trust of the district, which might have changed everything.

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Dana Woldow June 30, 2011 at 9:08 am

And not to beat another dead horse here, but for those who want to learn how to work effectively with their school district’s student nutrition director and school board to make changes in their own schools’ food, there is plenty of free advice, based on real-world experience, at http://www.peachsf.org.

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Mike McGalliard June 30, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Hello – Thank you all for the helpful links and notes.

I would hardly use the Cortines letter as evidence that LAUSD had already been planning a healthier menu before Jamie’s show. The letter was written April 11, after the show had completed filming and the district and Jamie had there fight well documented in the press. The letter even opens in reference to the show promos. I remember receiving the letter, and I remember reading it then (as I do now) saying to myself, “man, why is the Supt trying so hard to prove he doesn’t need Jamie’s help?”

I also have to laugh a little at the accusation that Jamie didn’t deliver on what he was asked by Cortines. He was asked to provide menu ideas, sit on committees, etc. That’s true. Jamie and I were talking about this – the requests to Jamie on this matter happened somewhere near the end of filming, like episode 4 (as LAUSD was banning him from the West Adams campus). I remember thinking then, just like now, that these offers reeked of bureaucratic subterfuge – “here Jamie, keep yourself busy with this other stuff, it’ll bore the hell out of you, and you’ll finally leave town.”

Jamie isn’t a hero that saved LAUSD with a ban on flavored milk and a new menu item called Salvadorian Beef Stew. And, I’ll say it again, Ray Cortines isn’t a villain; neither is the school board. But it’s a bit silly to try and argue that LAUSD already had it right, and the Jamie-disruption did nothing to speed along food reform here?

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dana July 11, 2011 at 1:57 am

Looking back at the show and how much it diverged from the nitty-gritty reality on the ground, this show reminds me of Suits, the USA Network cable show about lawyers, and how un-realistic that show is about the legal profession.

I’m not even a lawyer, but those mistakes in Suits are so jarring and big that its almost impossible not to notice. But, Suits is a fluffly, scripted throw-away summer show with the oh-so-pretty Gabrielle Macht that you’re not supposed to think during the show.

Whereas, Food Revolution isn’t a scripted show and I expected more verity from it. Instead, in its own way, I thought that the Food Revolution was just as scripted as something like Suits.

Coming into the season, I think the producers had decided beforehand that they wanted the show to revolve around the clash between Jamie and the LA adminstration and then they were going to tack on a fake happy ending just like you’d see in any other scripted show.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 11, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Dana: I can’t decide if they had a plan to make it all about LAUSD or if they didn’t have their ducks in a row before filming had to start (i.e., hadn’t gotten permission from LAUSD when they assumed they would) and then had no choice but to make that the drama.

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dana July 11, 2011 at 2:04 am

I’m pleasantly surprised that this blog thought highly enough of my links which I posted in the comments section to give them their own post. Before I posted them, I figured that Bettina must have already read those articles because she’s so on top of this issue.

I promise I’ll post anymore interesting links I find about Jamie Oliver.

But, in exchange, Bettina must tell me how she learned to write so well. Is there a book you could recommend on how to write better?When you compare what I wrote about those links and what Bettina wrote about the same links, there’s no comparison.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Dana – First, thank you for making my day (my week! my year!) with these kind words! But I’m laughing because when I read your initial comment on TLT, it was so nicely written that I assumed YOU were a blogger and I was looking around for your URL. Clearly you don’t need much instruction from me.

I have no book to recommend but can only share this advice, given to me when I was writing only as a lawyer, and that is to get your thoughts down and then go back and get rid of every extraneous word, sentence, or paragraph, no matter how cute or clever you might think it is. If it’s not essential to the whole, it needs to go. And I also recommend sitting on your writing for a while — advice which, as a daily blogger, I can hardly ever follow. But whenever I go back and read old posts, usually dashed off in a half hour or less before I hit “publish,” I always see clearly how they could have been greatly improved. (That’s why I try not to go back and re-read very often!)

Thank you again for your lovely comment! :-)

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