OK, everyone! Are we ready to dig into last night’s episode of Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution”? I’ll give you my take, then you share yours below.
Before we begin, let me say that although J.O.’s people awarded me “Blog of the Month” back in November, I’m assuming they can’t strip me of that honor now, so I’m going to be as honest as possible in my criticism. But I also want to reiterate that overall I’m always going to be big fan of J.O. for bringing national attention to some really serious problems. And I confess I just find him adorable. (Yeah, I’m that superficial.)
Much of the show was devoted to Oliver’s dismay that the Los Angeles Unified School District wouldn’t allow him to film “Food Revolution” in their schools. The show did an excellent job of making LAUSD officials look like they were engaging in a Watergate-level cover-up, with lots of unflattering shots of school board members looking mean and sneaky, while J.O. was portrayed as an sweet, innocent guy, wanting only to come improve the health of students in LA — and not the co-producer of an expensive reality show that might tank if access were denied. (Frivolous aside here: how many people suspect the “crazy guy” at the school board meeting was really an out-0f-work actor looking for his big break?)
I’ve got to say, this whole theme bugged me because after the first season of “Food Revolution,” there are lots of reasons why any school board might refuse access to “Food Revolution.” Good magazine reports that a follow-up study in West Virginia found “that his new school menus, while marginally healthier, ‘were not well-accepted and had a negative impact on meal participation and milk consumption.'” Moreover, his show made Huntington look terrible, and no doubt LAUSD was trying to escape that same fate. What someone in their Communications Department should have figured out, however, is that by denying Oliver access across the board, they now look far, far worse. I’m sure in retrospect they wish they’d thrown him a bone by giving him some kind of limited entree into one of their schools.
I thought it was brilliant of J.O. to ask parents and kids to bring school food to him, and of course it was only going to look worse hours or days after it was served. The stuff shown is a lot like what we see in Houston, where, like LAUSD, we also have a central kitchen and therefore a lot of food (at least at breakfast) comes wrapped in — and is reheated in — plastic. I find that practice totally alarming but have never even raised it with HISD, because I feel like we’ve got to first improve the food and then get into the logistics for serving it. So I was really glad that J.O. raised the issue of the safety of heating kids’ food in plastic every single day.
The food looked terrible and I’m sure it is, but I did note that there was some lovely looking corn on the cob on the table that was never raised before the cameras. That annoyed me because now I don’t know if J.O. is giving me a fair picture of the food or only showing me the worst of the worst to create the most drama. (How many people howled when the kids with the apple said they were home schooled?)
This next critique will blow your mind, but J.O.’s demonstration of ammonia-treated beef also left me a tiny bit ambivalent. I wrote about this practice almost a year ago (“One Burger, Please, Extra Ammonia and Hold the E. Coli“) and of course, like any sane person, I’m absolutely horrified by it. But by pouring straight ammonia — cups and cups of it — directly onto the beef, J.O. left viewers with the impression that merely putting the beef into your mouth would kill you on the spot. In fact it’s treated with an ammonia gas and the real news is that the process doesn’t even work — ammonia-treated meat can still be contaminated with E. Coli and salmonella. (I’m also under the impression, based on something I read from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack, that schools no longer use ammonia-treated beef, but if anyone has info to the contrary, let me know.) But don’t get me wrong — J.O.’s overall point about meat quality, knowing where one’s meat comes from and what’s in it, is critically important and I’m glad he raised it.
The sugar in the school bus demonstration was pretty awe-inspiring, I’ve got to say. I kept telling my daughter that we had to keep in mind that the sugar we were seeing needed to be divided by 650,000 (I believe that’s how many kids are served in LAUSD) but it still brought his point home. (I need to add here that I am not necessarily a proponent of banning flavored milk, something that will horrify a lot of you. But I’m not going to get into that now or it will take up the rest of this post. I promise to address that controversial issue in the near future.) I also thought it was a little lame that J.O. claimed that the poor turnout for his stunt showed that he was getting the “cold shoulder” from L.A. More likely, his advance team just did a bad job publicizing the event.
The whole portion of the show dealing with the fast-food restaurant sort of puzzled me. It seemed weird to expect that a guy who’s been selling burgers, fries and shakes for forty years is going to happily revamp his menu to offer far more expensive and entirely different sorts of foods. The fact that he was reluctant to do so only shows that he’s economically dependent on a successful business, not that J.O.’s idea of improved fast food wouldn’t be a big hit sold elsewhere. (I could see lines out the door for such food in many neighborhoods.)
But I did find that moment when the customer was asked to choose between the two burgers absolutely telling. He could clearly appreciate the flavor of fresher, less processed food, and he might even have understood which was healthier to eat, but he still wouldn’t pay more for it. That was deeply depressing, and probably reflects the view of a lot of Americans, whether out of economic necessity or just a desire to save a buck.
Finally, I thought the scenes with J.O.’s family were adorable, but as many have noted, it does feel a little icky that he chose to enroll his kids in L.A. private schools when the whole focus of this show is public school. (And as Dr. SuRu noted in a tweet last night, putting the kids in public school might have given him far more leverage before the school board.)
OK, there’s my off-the-top-of-my-head review of last night’s show. Your thoughts???