TLT Watch Party: Episode 3 of Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution”

by Bettina Elias Siegel on June 6, 2011

After a hiatus of several weeks, the third of four episodes of this season’s Jamie Oliver “Food Revolution” aired last Friday night.  As with the first two episodes (links below), I’ll provide a quick recap and my take on the show and then you let me know your thoughts and impressions.

The show opened with Deno, the owner of a burger joint whom J.O. has been imploring to offer healthier fare.  In this episode, J.O. offers Deno $30-40,000 worth of new restaurant equipment and a promotional push on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show (Seacrest is an executive producer of Food Revolution) if he will change the meat in his patties from the product he now uses (of unknown origins and possibly pink-slime-containing) to meat that Jamie procures from one of “LA’s best butchers.”  The cost of the change, we learn, will be thirty cents more per burger and the hope is that if Deno makes the switch, other fast food places will follow suit.

Deno’s resistance to this change struck me as a little trumped up — he moans and groans about it for half the show but then he asks his fry cook to try the new meat (which, by the way, already proved really popular in Episode 2) and when the fry cook likes it, he says that’s all he needed to know before agreeing to Jamie’s deal.  So if that’s true, why did he wait so long to do the taste test, and is he also forgetting that everyone loved the taste in Episode 2?   Whatever.

Next we return to West Adams High School where J.O. has been banned from the school kitchens (and from even talking with students about school food) but he is allowed to work with a team of ten culinary students.  (BTW, at the end of the last episode we were told ominously that JO had been banned by the LA school board from even filming in West Adams, yet here we are again with cameras, so not sure what’s up with that.)  Jamie has his students cook a meal for 150 West Adams students, with the supposed goal of eventually getting this little band of ten inexperienced cooks to prepare meals for “one thousand” students.  (Really?)

The meal they prepare looks delicious and wholesome – chicken drumsticks, whole grain macaroni and cheese, a green salad and a fruit salad.  J.O. makes no mention of the cost of this meal but one student later alludes to the fact that it’s made “at the same price” as the school meal.  I would LOVE more info on that claim, and would point out the rather obvious fact that even if the food does cost the same as the LAUSD school meal, all that fresh food is being prepared for free, by unpaid student labor.  Try asking LAUSD workers to forego their paycheck while preparing labor-intensive meals from scratch ingredients and see what happens.

J.O. seems to be under the impression that he can serve this food to West Adams students in or near their cafeteria, since he says something along the lines of, “I want them to see what we’ve got and what they’ve got.”  When some LAUSD official instead directs Jamie and his culinary team to the back of the school, Jamie claims to be shocked and devastated, calling the development a “bombshell.”

Now this is one of those instances where I can’t help but feel that viewers are being manipulated.  Maybe Jamie really is surprised here, and his later tears at a parent meeting about this development do seem genuine.  But a quick Google search yielded this California state regulation which indicates that foods offered by students during the school day need to be pre-approved by the governing board and cannot be food prepared on the school premises, as was the case with this lunch.  (I’m going to ask Dana Woldow, San Francisco school food reformer, for her take here in case I’m reading this incorrectly.)

But if there really are state rules (or union rules, which were also alluded to) that prevented Jamie from distributing his food, shouldn’t an advance person in his production team have thought to investigate a little before filming?  Anyone with even basic knowledge about school food would know that most states have rules regarding competitive food sales on campus, and, indeed, here in Texas, Jamie would definitely not have been able to bring his food into or near the cafeteria.  Had he done so, the school could lose its entire federal NSLP reimbursement for the day.

Then we get to the part of the show I liked least.   Jamie decides to introduce Deno to Sofia, the young West Adams student we met in Episode 2, whose entire family has been devastated by diabetes.  Jamie claims he is introducing Sofia to Deno to show “what inspires him to get up every morning,” but in reality, he is putting Deno in an extraordinarily uncomfortable position (I was literally squirming while watching this segment) and is implicitly blaming Deno and his ilk for Sofia’s family’s poor health.

Now, readers of TLT know I’m not above a little governmental regulation to improve public health, but like my more politically conservative readers who commented in the GOP kerfuffle last week, I found myself screaming (in my head – my kids were asleep), um, hello?  What about personal responsibility?  Why is no one talking to Sofia’s parents, who by Sofia’s own account last episode, continue to serve fried food in the home at least twice a week, despite the fact that their youngest daughter developed diabetes at age ten? No doubt that practice stems from ignorance and/or poverty, not malice, but let’s go ahead and address those problems, not make Deno seem like an evil monster.  Moreover, I readily acknowledging that our fast food culture (replete with restaurants like Deno’s) does play a role in our nation’s obesity problem, but I fail to see how improving the quality of Deno’s meat and making a few other seemingly minor changes to his menu will do the trick.  More on this below.

Jamie then exposes the shocking lack of food knowledge among West Adams high schoolers by asking them to identify the source of their food.  I was willing to give the kids a pass when a few of them thought butter came from corn (they probably eat margarine at home, which many refer to as “butter,” and which often has a corn logo on the tub), but even I was shocked when they thought honey came from bears and chocolate came from a chocolate lake.  Wow.

To educate them about processed food, Jamie creates an ice cream sundae to graphically illustrate the origins of certain food additives.  For example, to illustrate where L.-cystine comes from, he tosses human hair and feathers into the bowl.  For the shellac on the shiny candies, he tosses live beetles into the bowl.  The kids are suitably grossed out.

TLT readers may recall that an almost identical lesson (replete with feathers and hair) is used by Recipe for Success here in Houston to teach kids about what is in a Hot Pocket (“Deconstructing a Hot Pocket to Teach Kids About Nutrition.”) When I described that lesson on TLT, it was criticized by two readers, one of whom wrote:

I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of harmful “crap” in our processed foods–we most certainly do and I commend the chef for wanting to point that out to the kids. What I do find fault with is equating something that’s IN lipstick to lipstick itself and more or less drawing the conclusion for the kids that their food is filled with lipstick and duck feathers. That’s not teaching the truth–that’s using scare tactics.

I suppose the same could be said of Jamie’s lesson, although I think no one can disagree with the overarching instruction he gave to the students, which was, if you don’t know what something is in the ingredient list, put the food back on the shelf.  That simple instruction, if followed, will set students on a path of much healthier eating.

Next we see the grand re-opening of Deno’s, now selling Revolution Burgers, regular burgers with improved meat, and french fries that have been spun in a new device called the Spinfresh. (For the curious, I did a little research.  According to the Spinfresh site, this centrifuge/fryer reduces fat content in fried food up to 38%, although the reduction can be lower, e.g., 15% for fried fish or 16% for chicken wings.)

Of course, I’d much rather eat at the new and improved Deno’s than the old one, but I still wondered how much of a Big Picture improvement this is.  In other words, if Sofia’s family replaced their current fast food with Deno’s new fast food, would they really see a huge difference in their health?  (Any RD’s out there – please let me know what you think.) Wouldn’t the real solution be for Sofia’s family to just eat less fast food — even healthier fast food — altogether?

The episode ends with a local nurse telling Deno how appreciative she is of his new menu.  Deno is touched by the nurse’s gratitude and there’s a moving moment when Deno describes how generous and caring his late father was, implying that his father would approve of the new menu changes.

OK, that’s a wrap.   Now tell me what you thought.  (And if you missed the episode, you can watch the full video here.)

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

KGreene June 6, 2011 at 8:19 am

I agree with your comments about *drama*. The reality is JO is an actor and this is reality television. It doesn’t matter what happens, drama is key to keep it all moving.

That said—the scene with Deno and Sophia was so over the top. Thankfully, Deno really didn’t buy into it all and said so. But I was a bit disturbed that JO and crew didn’t stop to think that what they’re telling this CHILD is that the world is to blame for her family’s condition. Yep, blame it on everyone else. I work with teenagers, and have teenagers of my own, and this is exactly what teens DON’T need to hear. I hope, at some point, JO will ask Sophia what SHE has done to change her family’s situation.

School lunches are a big political issue. I’m guessing, from watching the show, that a large number of these students at West Adams are on free/reduced lunch program. Why can’t JO and his crew hand out healthy sack lunches on the sidewalk before school? I know they did this at an elementary school, but why not at West Adams?

Everyone is motivated by $$$! Deno will change his restaurant if the $$ comes in. School programs will change their practices when they start losing money because nobody is eating it. Heck–I’d bet even Sophia’s family would be willing to change if JO’s show paid them to do so!

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Renee June 6, 2011 at 10:04 am

It is a shame that JO would imply that a particular fast food restaurant in to blame for Sophia’s family’s poor health. No one restaurant is responsible for the health problems Americans are experiencing. To me it seems that it is our culture that is responsible –feeling that it’s okay for corporations to do whatever they want, but it’s not okay for communities to try to regulate themselves through legislation, coupled with the learned process of always blaming some one else for your problems. As a college teacher, I see this in students regularly –if they do poorly on an assignment, they rarely ask themselves what they could do to improve. Instead they blame the teacher, the assignment, their work schedule. We need a culture that combines personal responsibility with community rules that support a healthy life style.

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Bri June 6, 2011 at 10:30 am

Amen, Renee.
And I also agree with what was said above about JO asking Sophia what she can do to better the circumstances for her family. That lovely girl has said more than once now that she just considers it a matter of time before she gets diabetes, too. While I feel for her, truly feel for her, I also think JO is helping to promote a “victim” mentality and a sense of inevitability in her rather than motivating her to be proactive for her own health — let alone her family’s health.
One of the best things about Season 1 was his work, one-on-one, in the kitchen and home of that family with the severely obese teen. Why are we not seeing him do the same thing with Sophia’s family? Why is he not at their door, hand-in-hand with their daughter, to show them a better way?
I hate to say this, but the cynic in me, which I try to bury as much as I can, wonders whether it might be because he or his producers are afraid they’ll struggle to find clear answers to the obstacles that may be facing her family with regard to real food. Do they work too many jobs, or too many long shifts, to be able to get a homecooked meal on the table at a reasonable hour? Do they have limited access to healthy foods and cooking facilities? What’s the deal?
I don’t know…but until JO goes in there, finds out, and then works to change their situation for the better rather than blaming society as a whole, I’m not going to be a fan of this storyline at all.

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Bettina Elias Siegel June 6, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Exactly what I was thinking – why not do a W.VA-style intervention???

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Gaye June 6, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Unfortunately ABC cancelled this show for poor ratings. I thought it was a good show.

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Dana Woldow June 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Gaye, I don’t think ABC has actually canceled the show – yet.

However, the ratings have certainly been dropping. When Season One premiered back in March 2010, the first episode drew over 7.5 million viewers, the most of any show in that time slot (9pm Friday).

This year, the premiere of Season Two on April 12, 2011, drew 5.3 million viewers and finished 3rd in its time slot at 8pm Tuesday.

A week later, the second episode of season two drew 4.7 million viewers, finishing 4th in the time slot.

It was at that point that the network decided to pull the show until after the “sweeps” period in May was over.

When the show came back at the end of May, the two episodes which had already aired were rerun, to bring the audience back up to speed and accustom people to the new Friday time slot. Those two back-to-back reruns on May 30th, running at 8pm and 9pm, drew 2.7 and 2.3 million viewers respectively, each finishing 4th for its time slot.

Finally, the latest episode (number 3) which aired June 3rd at 8pm Friday, pulled 2.4 million viewers, and finished 3rd in its time slot. Given that 2.4 million viewers is less than half the number who tuned in to the season premiere back in April, and less than one third of the number who watched the first episode of season one in March 2010, I have to say it doesn’t look hopeful for a third season.

JO seems to like playing the victim and blaming everyone around him for his problems, so we will no doubt soon be told that “the network” killed his show, or “the LAUSD” did it, or just that “the Americans don’t want to hear it”. But the truth is, the show just hasn’t been very interesting this year. And that’s what American reality TV is all about – you either catch people’s interest or you don’t, and if you don’t, then it doesn’t matter how noble your intentions are, or how vital your message. If you can’t engage the viewers, you’re dead.

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Mrs. Q June 6, 2011 at 9:28 pm

The show has not been terribly interesting this year, but I think that most of that is because he was shut out of LAUSD. I don’t think producers had a plan B (and maybe their plan A wasn’t too hot either). Maybe they should have abandoned LA and gone to another district as there were many that seemed far more interested in working with him. I suspect that his producers didn’t have a lot of experience working with a large, urban district.

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Dana Woldow June 6, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Bettina, you are reading the California regs correctly – there are definitely limits set by the state of California on student food sales at school, and the JO project did indeed violate the one about how students can’t sell food prepared on school premises. Additionally, the project would have needed the prior approval of the governing board of the school district (ie – the school board) and they could not sell more than 3 kinds of items, so their meal, which sounded like it had 5 items (chicken, mac n cheese, salad, fruit, and beverage) would have been a problem as well.

That said, the rules really aren’t there to address the kind of project JO was doing. Sales of food by high school students to raise money for their clubs and extra-curricular activities are a long and cherished California tradition. We had a hell of a time with this when we were first implementing our wellness policy in San Francisco back in 2003; there were schools where kids were selling pizza (from boxes delivered by neighborhood pizzerias as early as 9am, which then sat stacked up on the floor in the corridors until the lunchtime sale) every single day to raise money to pay for their prom or whatever.

Eventually we got the daily sales to stop, but we continue to allow HS students to host 4 food sale days per year; these are generally the last day of school before a vacation, like spring break. There has been a slight effort to get the kids to not sell so much junk, but really we have confined it mostly just to asking them not to sell sodas, bags of chips or candy bars. Most of the schools call their sale days some kind of “festival”, usually with a multicultural theme, so we encourage them to go with that, and instead of soda, sell bubble tea or horchata; instead of candy, how about ethnic sweets – cannoli or Chinese egg custard tarts or sweet potato pie? Not that these are necessarily any healthier, but if it is a food festival, we want to see Food, not just prepackaged American junk like they all see far too much of already. So that, by and large, is how these 4 days a year play out, at least here in SF.

However, the JO “let’s show them what we can cook compared to what they are cooking” reasoning is flawed on more levels than just possible violation of student food sales rules. We often hear this kind of thinking from people who are new to the school food reform movement, or from students just starting to get involved with trying to make changes. They call for boycotting the cafeteria, or bringing in food trucks to sell to students out in front of the school in competition with the cafeterias, or even demanding that local restaurants be allowed in to provide catering directly from the cafeteria kitchen.

“Let’s force nutrition services to give us better food!” is the thinking, as if the nutrition services folks were all just sitting around in their gleaming state of the art cooking kitchens, hoarding stockpiles of healthy tasty food locked in their giant SubZero freezer, while doling out plastic wrapped containers of unidentifiable processed lunches and cackling madly over their success in cheating the low income students out of a wholesome meal.

The sad reality, as I have said many times before, is that our school meal programs are almost criminally underfunded; our schools mostly lack kitchens, with some literally operating the meal program out of a closet, and even the schools with kitchens from 40 or 50 years ago lack equipment with which to scratch cook. Labor, benefits, food and utility costs skyrocket by dollars while government reimbursements inch up by pennies. It is a miracle that our hard working, unappreciated nutrition services staff can put a meal on the table for our kids at all, let alone one which is safe, and healthy, and nutritious, even if it lacks the glamour of a reality-TV meal. The commitment of our school board to feed every hungry child, including those who show up in the lunch line with no money to pay for their food, but not qualified to receive free meals, is another financial pressure on the meal program, and helps drive the $2 million + deficit our program will post here in SF for the 2010-11 school year.

People who think that running a competing lunch program, whether it is a JO-style meal cooked at school by students, or a collection of food carts parked outside the school gates, is going to help in any way, are deluded. All that will happen is that the cafeterias will serve less meals – but their biggest fixed costs (labor and overhead) will not be reduced. Only the revenue they can bring in will be reduced. In other words, instead of making things better, the added competition will just result in less money to run the program, meaning that some emergency cuts will have to be made midyear to help stop the financial bleeding.

So, perhaps a recently hired low paid cafeteria worker will lose her job. Or the pilot program that brought organic produce into the salad bars once a month (at much higher cost than the usual produce, but at least the kids could get organics once in a while) might be scrapped to save money. Perhaps a few of the more costly entrees would have to be removed from the regular rotation to cut costs. Or the breakfast program, which alternated cold cereal with some carefully selected hot entrees, might have to revert to cold cereal 5 days a week, because it is cheaper. Or maybe money could be saved by switching back to juice at breakfast instead of the recently introduced fresh fruit, which is more costly.

Take your pick – how would YOU help defray the damage done by the well-meaning but wrong-headed boycott of the cafeteria? And after you have chosen you preferred cut – laid off that worker, or swapped out a pricier healthier food for something cheaper and maybe not as nutritious – can you truly say that the boycott or the competitive lunch really “forced nutrition services to offer better food”?

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Justin June 6, 2011 at 4:50 pm

What a great reply, Dana!

One of the things I’m curious about in this debate (that I’ve seen get NO attention) is the “paid students” and how much that could be used to offset the free program. I hope you’ll forgive me that I don’t know how it all works…

When I was in school, I did not qualify for free or reduced lunch but I enjoyed (and still do) warm food versus a PBJ or deli meat sandwich from home, so I often took advantage of the hot lunch line as a paying customer. Does the food offered to paying students have to be identical in “reimbursement price” and nutritional value to that of the free/reduced offering? It would seem at first glance that al-la-carte items or alternative offerings for paid meals could be used to offset the cost of the free/reduced program, if done carefully. I know great lengths are gone to to not single out the free/reduced students. Is that what prevents schools from doing that more agressively?

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Mrs Q June 6, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Terrific reply. You rock.

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Justin June 6, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Thanks for the re-quote from my earlier comment. ;-)

I’m also finding this season increasingly frustrating. I don’t know if it’s JO himself or if it’s the way the producers are cutting the tape to tell the story, but this season seems more about Jamie’s frustration with people not jumping on his bandwagon than it is about getting to the core of the problem, educating people, telling touching stories, and finding solutions that everyone can live with.

Jamie (or his producers…or both) needs to understand a few things that they seem to be missing, namely:

– This is America and it’s a democratic society with all the unfortunate bureaucracy that comes with that (unions, policies, laws, procedures, budgets…all things that take time to change). You can’t just get in good with some head honcho and expect to make major changes to an establishment like the national school lunch program or the LAUSD’s food program with the snap of your fingers because you’re a celebrity with lots of energy and a go-getter attitude or a hoard of parents behind you with picket signs. Unfortunately, you have to “work the system” to some degree and show some respect for it (or at least a little restraint). You can buck the system, but the system is going to use its own power to push back. The bigger the system, the bigger the push-back.

– Unlike JO’s upscale restaurants, people like Deno (or is it Dino?) rely on their daily “regulars” for core profits (and his own paycheck). You’re talking labor workers, etc., who go there frequently because it’s within their budget and short timeframe for lunch. If you make a major change to the menu and they don’t like it, they may stop coming and never return (even if you change it back). The big difference is there may not be another person ready to take that lost loyal customer’s place. From this perspective, I totally understand Deno’s worry about making the kinds of drastic changes Jamie wanted all at once. ONE customer lost to him is a very big deal.

In short, there are two ways to get things done in this country (quite different from England, I’d guess). You either work hard and get tons of people behind you to show support and demand change (through elections, public demonstrations, or voting with your wallet–the true American way), or you work WITHIN the system, learning how it got that way, making friends, and making small changes to steer a very large ship in a new direction. I honestly don’t see him taking either approach. What I see him doing is marching into a city as an outsider, demanding change very loudly on his British soapbox, and getting disgusted that he’s not seeing quick results and not drumming-up the parental support he’s used to getting in smaller communities.

To this, I say to him, “Work harder and have some respect for the people and things you’re trying to change. You’re in a celebrity’s town and your celebrity status doesn’t hold the weight it may have back home or in a small town in WV. You want to change the system, it’s going to take much more than shock value.”

On a side note… (Cause I’m sure you’re expecting it)
With regard to the so-called science class demo. I wasn’t nearly as disgusted with that as I was with the earlier one about the pink slime (pouring liquid household ammonia on meat is nothing like ammonia gas treatment and the entire system has nothing to do with clothes washers, but don’t get me started). :-)

What did frustrate me about this one was that he chose a food where the objectionable ingredients were more concentrated in the choice of toppings than the food itself and “making good snack choices” was not what he aimed to highlight. Anyone can go into a supermarket and find an ice cream with a relatively short ingredient list (cream, eggs, vanilla). Of course, if you’re going to load it up with candy, it’s going to become unhealthy pretty quickly. Of course, if you choose puree’d strawberries instead of chocolate sauce and candy, it’s going to be healthier (duh). It’s not so much the list of ingredients that makes it bad as it is the sheer volume and choice to load it all up on top of a relatively innocuous dessert like ice cream.

Let’s also not ignore the fact that he had Twinkies buried in that pile of junk, probably for the sole purpose of increasing the length of his butcher paper ingredients list. I dunno about you, but I’ve never seen Twinkies on the sundae toppings menu at my local scoop shop. :-)

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Melissa House June 7, 2011 at 10:27 am

Sorry, I walked away from computer and posted on wrong blog. Please ignore.

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Melissa House June 7, 2011 at 11:44 am

I loved reading what ever one had to say. I do love J.O.’s efforts and his big ideas. I really loved his first show better and he did all the right things then, but I do agree with what every one had too say, he was over his head, he should have gone to another school, had a new plan, stuck to what he did the first show and this was a big flop. I did like the fact, when he showed how HS kids did not know where food comes from. I think that is the key to everything he is preaching to. We have to get back to the basics of teaching children. His demonstration of the ice cream I thought at the time was a great idea, but as someone pointed out, it was overboard and not the right lesson. I believe teaching kids to know how to read a food label, and learn where some of their ingredients comes from are very important and they need to be shown in a manner the student can understand. But, how do you do that, when they don’t care, nor do they know where butter, corn dogs, and honey come from. Our children are clueless, so to get them interested on wanting to know and learn is the key. I believe giving them the right opportunities to want to learn is where J.O. needs to go. If you want to make real change, then we need to start teaching children k thru 12, food education as a required subject. From, identification, growing, cooking, eating, nutrition, and food science. I feel start there the change will come over time.

Now, with school lunches, you cannot compete with the program in place. What you can do, and what some schools are doing, is opening a student run cafe, that serves food to teachers. The culinary arts kids earn money for their program while, learning to run a business, and sell wholesome foods. Therefore, if children start learning at an early age about food, then actually run a business doing so, we have created the next food generation.

Fixing school lunches? The government makes it mandatory to serve a nutritious meal for children, they never mandated it taste good. Due to lack of funding, we are where we are at. Right now, school funding (especially Texas) are being cut by the billions. Teacher layoffs are wide spread. I am a food science teacher who cannot find a job with a master degree in education. I don’t think school are finding it necessary to teach food during this time, nor change the system in place. What is the answer?

If the government pumped as much money as we do in healthcare and war into education, where do you think education would be right now? It is a sham what we are doing to our children and their lack of. We can send a man to the space station but we cannot keep a teacher in a room much less put a good nutritious meal on a child’s plate. Ok, I have had my b…time to shut up:)

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Diana June 8, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Thanks for the recap-very succint :-). My bit of input concerns your emphasis on ‘age ten’, implying Sophia’s sister is incredibly young to have diabetes. With emphasis on food-related disorders, it’s important to distinguish between the two main types of diabetes, one related to eating habits and obesity, the other not. It seems minor to most, but it’s a misconception us Type 1’s deal with often.

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Bettina Elias Siegel June 9, 2011 at 7:04 am

Diana: That’s a good point, but how are we sure that Sofia’s sister doesn’t have the type of diabetes that is diet-caused? Given what we know of the family’s eating habits, and given that it is entirely possible for a young child to get Type II (it used to be rare but sadly, not anymore), I assumed that the sister does have Type II.

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