Sugar-coated: Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Revolution’ Is Camera-Ready

Arun Gupta Apr 21, 2010

Originally published by AlterNet at

DISTASTEFUL: Chef Jamie Oliver cooks for students at West Virginia’s Central City Elementary School, featured in his reality TV series Food Revolution, airing on ABC. PHOTO COURTESY: BRITANNICA.COM

You’ve never seen a school lunch like this one, made with hydroponic vegetables and free-range chicken by a brash British superchef. Not that the elementary schoolchildren care. Most sing-song “Pizza!” when given a choice between the gourmet grub and the reheated factory-made frozen pizza. At the end of the lunch period, a mound of chicken sits untouched, and even more is dumped into the trash after a few wary nibbles.

That much we do know from watching Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” reality TV series now airing on ABC. But we’re not supposed to know that Jamie is substituting high-end foodstuffs that normally grace three-star restaurants for the cheap, institutional fare dished out in public schools like West Virginia’s Central City Elementary School, the setting for the first two episodes.

At the end of one episode, we hear Rhonda McCoy, director of food services for the local county, tell Jamie that he’s over budget and did not meet the fat content and calorie guidelines, but she’s going to let him continue with the “revolution” as long as he addresses these issues. What is not revealed is that the “meal cost at Central City Elementary during television production more than doubled with ABC Productions paying the excess expense,” according to a document obtained by AlterNet from the West Virginia Department of Education.

Jamie landed on America’s shores with the self-anointed mission to remake our eating habits for the better. Ground zero is Huntington, West Virginia. In an opening montage we are told the city of 50,000 “was recently named the unhealthiest city in America … where nearly half of the adults are considered obese” as we see lardy folk shuffle through the frame.

While Jamie’s efforts touch on many problems of school food — from overuse of processed foods to lack of funding to French fries being considered a vegetable — the “Food Revolution” is a failure because the entertainment narrative is unable to deal with complexities or systemic issues. Instead, all problems are reduced to individual stories and choices. The series may sprinkle some facts and hot-button issues into the mix, but what keeps the viewer hungering for more is the personal dramas, conflicts and weepy moments that are the staples of reality TV.

Because Jamie is packaged as a one-man whirlwind, tangling with “lunch lady Alice” while “Stirn’ things oop,” there is no mention of the existing, deep-rooted movement for local, healthy food from the farm to the market to the table, as well as schools. It’s also more fun and shocking to “slag off” a poor school district in Appalachia for serving pizza and flavored milk for breakfast than to examine how West Virginia has imposed some of the strictest school nutritional standards in the nation. But that’s entertainment.

The reality behind “Food Revolution” is that after the first two months of the new meals, children were overwhelmingly unhappy with the food, milk consumption plummeted and many students dropped out of the school lunch program, which one school official called “staggering.” On top of that food costs were way over budget, the school district was saddled with other unmanageable expenses, and Jamie’s failure to meet nutritional guidelines had school officials worried they would lose federal funding and the state department of education would intervene.

In short, the “Food Revolution” has flunked out. At Central City Elementary, where Jamie burst in with loads of fanfare, expense and energy, the school has reintroduced the regular school menu and flavored milk because the “Food Revolution” meals were so unpopular. In what looks like a face-saving gesture, Jamie’s menu remains as a lunchtime option, but given the negative student response, don’t be surprised if it’s quietly phased out by next school year. (You can see both menus here.)

Ultimately, Jamie picked the wrong target. Dr. Carole Harris, who along with Dr. Drew Bradlyn evaluated student responses at Central City Elementary to the “Food Revolution” program, says factors such as sedentary lifestyles, fast-food consumption, family meal patterns and junk-food advertising aimed at children are “a much bigger problem than food served in schools.”

Jan Poppendieck, author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, agrees that individual schools and districts are not the root of the problem. She says children who participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) “are more likely to eat healthy food” than kids who don’t. Participating children are more likely to consume “low or nonfat milk, fruits, vegetables and less likely to consume desserts, snack foods, juice drinks and carbonated soda at lunch” than students who do not eat the federally subsidized lunches.

Still, there is an opportunity here. About 31.3 million schoolchildren a day participate in the NSLP, which served 5.2 billion meals in 2009 (62.5 percent of the participants qualified for free or near-free meals). Many school systems are doing what they can, but school lunches are a sorry affair, as Ed Bruske of the Slow Cook blog chronicled in one school. Using fresh, local foodstuff to remake school meals based on the most nutritious fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains could dramatically improve our society’s eating habits, health, and agricultural and food system.

To his credit, Jamie bases his menu on these foods, but it drove students away. It shows the fatal flaw in his plan. By replacing French fries with broccoli you can’t expect to change the whole school lunch system. Students are not being given a choice between a mediocre lunch and fresh, organic cuisine. It’s between a mediocre lunch and junk food. No one behind the show wants to confront this reality because ABC, Jamie Oliver and Ryan Seacrest (one of the producers) all profit handsomely from the processed and junk-food industry either through advertising — more than $15 billion in 2008 from just 15 food companies — or in the case of Oliver, endorsements.

If Jamie and Co. wanted to make a real difference they should go after the fast-food industry and abominations like the KFC “Double Down,” a breadless sandwich composed of two fried chicken cutlets piled with bacon, cheese and “Colonel’s Sauce.” Then again, a recent issue of the Jamie Magazine reportedly features a “wholesome” school meal of “tuna Waldorf pita with hot vanilla milk, an oaty biscuit, and a banana” that has 643 more calories and 23 grams more fat (pdf) than a Double Down.

To source, cook and get children to eat fresh, healthy local food we would need to double school food funding, get schoolchildren involved in growing and cooking their own food, ban junk-food advertising, slap a health tax on fast food, shift agribusiness subsidies to small, community-controlled farms, provide proper health care and nutrition education, and promote social and cultural changes in how American families exercise and approach, prepare and eat food. Then most children (and adults) would probably make healthy choices. But this would require a real revolution, not one manufactured for television.

Fat Mountain

The mantra of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” is choice. But America’s ever-expanding waistline is caused by systemic issues: widespread poverty, sedentary lifestyles, junk-food advertising, a lack of health care, corporate control of the food system, the prevalence of cheap fast food, food designed to be addictive, and subsidies and policies that make meats and sugars cheaper than whole fruits and vegetables.

These factors make choice more of a construct. Many people opt for flavor-intense, highly processed, calorie-dense food because it’s cheaper, easier and more fulfilling than cooking healthy foods from scratch. And there’s no one helping to educate them and help modify their behaviors and habits because there is much more profit in the huge diet industry and obesity-related diseases than in prevention.

Jamie does try to tackle this problem by opening up a kitchen in Huntington with free cooking classes. Being reality TV, however, it’s also used as a ploy to roll out the Edwards family — presumably the tubbiest folks in town — by trying to teach them healthy cooking. The “Food Revolution” found a family desperate enough for help and covetous enough of fame that they allow Jamie to pile into a mound their gruesome diet of pizza, bacon, pancakes, burgers, corndogs, eggs, fruit pies, brownies, cheese, biscuits, chips, fries, donuts and chicken nuggets.

The show unleashes a deluge of crushed emotions, culture and families sluicing through fat river with the high point being the golden-brown grease pyramid the parents and four kids consume weekly, spawning a 12-year-old child who weighs 350 pounds. It’s a warmed-over intervention narrative: set-up, confrontation, confession, breakdown and makeover. Take marginal people, make them feel shitty about themselves, offer redemption and serve it up to millions of viewers.

Seated before the summit of fat, Jamie admonishes Stacie, the mom, “This stuff goes through you and your family’s body every week. And I need you to know that this is going to kill your childrens early [sic].” As plaintive guitar music cues up, Jamie asks, “How are you feeling?”

“I’m just feeling really sad and depressed right now,” a tearful Stacie responds. “I want my kids to succeed in life and this isn’t going to get them there. … But I’m killing them. … Seeing that food scares me, to think that I’m opening my kids to a world of failure.”

The scenes with another morbidly obese teenager, Brittany, are just cynical. A student at Huntington High School, she reveals in the third episode that doctors have told her she has “spots” on her liver and has perhaps seven years to live. The show tugs your heartstrings as she breaks down repeatedly, citing Jamie as her last, best hope. Never mind his luscious cuisine is the last thing she needs. If Jamie really wanted to help, he could part with a smidgen of his $60 million fortune that he has amassed while building an Oprah-like media empire and pay for intensive counseling, behavioral modification, gastric bypass surgery and follow-up care, which is probably the only way to save Brittany’s life.

Interestingly, the “Food Revolution” replicates another ABC show dealing with food, health and fitness — the 2006 “Shaq’s Big Challenge.” What these shows and the whole makeover genre do, argue scholars Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, is remake social welfare within a “market logic that values entrepreneurialism, mass customization and profit accumulation” so that “people who are floundering can and must be taught to develop and maximize their capacities for normalcy, happiness, material stability, and success rather than rely on a public ‘safety net.'”

‘Breakfast Pizza’

The manipulation of the Edwards family, Brittany and viewers’ emotions might be forgiven if the show was really going to change our food system, but it is not. The school food system does need a complete overhaul, but many school districts are trying to make the best of a bad situation, which Jamie never acknowledges. Given severe funding constraints and conflicting guidelines, there is an economic and nutritional logic to serving pizza and flavored milk for breakfast, as we see Central City Elementary do in the very first episode.

Richard J. Goff, the executive director of West Virginia’s Office of Child Nutrition, says, “The pizza is not pizza like you’d purchase from a Wal-Mart or Kroger, it’s made with low-fat cheese and a whole wheat crust.”

Dr. Harris, co-director of West Virginia University’s Health Research Center, says, “The standard school foods they show are far healthier than they appear. The French fries are baked, not fried. The pizza and other breads are typically made with whole grain products. But these are not necessarily highlighted to students.”

That the school serves breakfast in the first place is an example of West Virginia’s efforts to raise the standards. Goff says it “is the first state in the nation to have a breakfast program mandate that breakfast must be offered to children in all schools.” He also points out that in 2008 the state enacted “the most progressive nutrition standards in the nation,” which were drawn up by the Institute of Medicine. West Virginia has also removed soda sales during the school day, except for two counties out of 55 that allow it in high schools. Goff adds there are no outside vendors and “we do not permit a la carte sales.”

Author Jan Poppendieck explains that a la carte food “undermines the nutritional integrity of school meals.” She says kids “can pick at the parts of school lunch they feel like eating and then fill up with pastries. They have on their tray a meal that has been planned to meet nutrition standards, but then they can buy candy, and research shows that they do. Children who were in school without a la carte options ate more of the official lunch.”

So even though these kids are eating “breakfast pizza” with “luminous pink” milk, it’s probably more nutritious than what they would eat otherwise, assuming their parents were even able to feed them breakfast. The median household income in the city of Huntington is about 55 percent of the U.S. average. We never learn that a phenomenal 86 percent (pdf) of the children at Central City Elementary qualify for free or near-free meals because of widespread poverty.

These schools are being blamed for being on the end of a broken-down system. Jamie never says a word about McDonald’s, junk-food advertising aimed at children, or how the corporate control of food is squeezing out the very small, local producers he claims to value so much. Perhaps it’s because he pockets nearly $2 million a year shilling for Sainsbury’s, one of the largest grocers in the United Kingdom. One critic blasts Jamie for pushing “ready-made foods” while “there is little evidence of his stardust” at Sainsbury’s, chock full of “hundreds of lines of salty, sugary, fatty foods.”

Customers or Students?

Another reason Central City Elementary uses processed foods is budgeting issues. The federal government reimburses schools a paltry $2.68 for lunches and $1.46 for breakfasts (pdf) for children who qualify as long as the food meets specific guidelines. Goff, of the Office of Child Nutrition, says in Cabell County, where the elementary school is located, “they are cooking from scratch 50 percent of the time.” He adds that “50 percent of the cost to produce a meal is in the form of labor. It’s kind of hard to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables. You pay a premium for those.”

Poppendieck says after school districts pay for labor, equipment, administration, transport, storage and other expenses, it leaves them with “somewhere between 85 cents and a dollar” for the actual ingredients for lunches. For breakfast, even assuming a generous ratio for purchasing ingredients, Central City has perhaps 60 cents to buy the food for a government-approved, reimbursable meal. Try buying breakfast for 60 cents; it won’t even get you a Snickers bar.

The way the school food program is structured, the federal government only reimburses schools for what they actually serve. Goff says in West Virginia, “Participation in our program drives funding. … You have to prepare foods and menus that children are going to eat or you’re defeating the purpose.” Boosting student participation increases food budgets in two ways: it lowers the costs of meals by creating greater economies of scale, and more meals sold mean a higher percentage of money can go toward purchasing food ingredients because labor, equipment and administration are mostly fixed costs.

This leads school systems to try to maximize revenue by catering to children’s tastes formed by the fast-food industry, which is why there are so many burgers, chicken nuggets, fries and pizza on the menu. Poppendieck says because schools are in the “situation of selling food to children rather than having it as a regular part of the day,” they treat students as “customers,” driving “the menu toward what appeals to kids.”

As one solution, she proposes making school lunches free for all students. Another would be to increase the reimbursement rate. The Child Nutrition Act currently before the Senate would increase amount of funding by an “extra 6 cents per meal per student for schools that meet new, stricter nutrition guidelines.” That’s right, a whole 6 cents. Poppendieck says this could backfire because “raising the standards without increasing the amount of resources may drive schools out of the program.”

As it turns out, Jamie’s “Food Revolution” is not so different from normal school fare. A complete breakdown of the first three weeks of his lunch meals included Beef Stew, Spaghetti with Meat Sauce, Sloppy Joes, Beef Goulash, Beef Stroganoff, Double Thick Cheesy Pizza and Beefy Nachos. So much for healthy eating.

Food Fit for Pets

Then there are liability issues. If a child is sickened by food cooked in the school, the school district is legally responsible. But by reheating factory-made food, the school can push the liability “upstream,” making the processor liable for any illnesses. School food service directors tell Poppendieck they “feel that meat has become more dangerous, and they’re not sure if the schools have the equipment or controls to properly cook the meats.” This is backed up by a series of articles in USA Today that found fast-food companies “are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens” than the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the feds have kept school officials in the dark about specific food product warnings and failed to shut down contaminated plants; and in the last decade the USDA spent $145 million for “spent-hen meat” for school lunches that is normally used for pet food and compost.

There is another liability issue. School meals must meet two sets of standards to be reimbursable. One, they must provide a minimum amount of proteins, minerals, vitamins and calories. Two, meals must contain a maximum of 30 percent of calories from fat and 10 percent from saturated fat. (The first set of standards was established during WWII when there was a fear of shortages; the second was put in place during the ’80s when fat-phobia came into fashion.) This creates an incentive for schools to purchase processed foods from government-approved manufacturers because the companies are the ones held liable if the foods don’t meet nutritional standards.

Poppendieck says this bureaucratic maze “creates a difficult situation … where technical and legal compliance are counter to intent. Food service directors all over the country have told me they were taken to task by their state administrators for being a few calories short, and even hit with financial penalties.” She says this is another reason why schools “end up opting for less healthy requirements.”

Drink Your Flavored Milk

Flavored milk stands out as one of those less healthy requirements. Jamie Oliver directs much of his ire toward the chocolate milk and the pink milk, which he repeatedly claims has more sugar than soda. Sounds appalling. Except, Goff says, “That’s not true that flavored milk has more sugar than soft drinks.” He says, “On average, an eight-ounce serving of low-fat chocolate milk contains about four teaspoons of added sugar, while an equivalent amount of soft drink contains seven teaspoons.” Goff adds that a cup of milk does contain almost three more teaspoons of naturally occurring sugar in the form of lactose.

It is disingenuous not to acknowledge nearly half the sugar in milk is lactose. The real scandal is how Jamie’s zero-tolerance policy for flavored milk caused a huge drop in milk consumption. For the two months before the Food Revolution program was introduced, milk consumption at Central City Elementary was 632 units a day. For two months after, it plunged to 472 units a day.

Goff says, “I was upset the most with the flavored milk consumption. The reason they advocate it is it increases the consumption of milk and get the vitamins and nutrients they need. … When students stop drinking milk that’s a great cause of concern. I don’t believe the sugar content is a great cause of concern.” Nonetheless, adds Goff, if there are concerns about children receiving too much sugar from flavored milk, the state can work with processors to lower the amount of sugar.

In what may surprise some, Jan Poppendieck is no absolutist when it comes to flavored milk either. She brings up another important factor, “eating habits.” Fond of chocolate milk as a child, she says “I don’t have all the negative connotations when I see chocolate milk. I would encourage kids to try low-fat unflavored milk, but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to ban chocolate milk from my cafeteria.” She laughs after making this comment, saying it may haunt her for years to come.

There’s also another complexity behind the spread of flavored milk: those dueling nutrition guidelines and lack of funds. If a school district finds a meal has too much fat, it can raise the calorie count to lower the proportion of fat. “The quickest, least expensive fix … is to add sugar,” writes Poppendieck. “Sweetened, flavored milks have become a staple of the cafeteria, and desserts are making a comeback. An additional serving of vegetables, the element in which American diets are most glaringly deficient, would usually fill the calorie gap, but it is beyond the financial reach of most schools.”

Jamie Flunks Out

Turns out that even with an unlimited budget, Jamie was unable to design a menu that provided a minimum number of calories while not exceeding the fat limits. A nutritional analysis of the first three weeks of meals (15 lunches) at Central City Elementary conducted by the West Virginia Board of Education flunked him on both counts. A whopping 80 percent of his lunches exceeded either the total fat or saturated fat allowance, and most of the time both, and 40 percent of his lunches provided too few calories. Although to be fair this may unfortunately be the norm across the country. According to author Jill Richardson, only 6 to 7 percent of schools actually meet all the government’s nutrition standards in their lunches.

On top of that, according to the survey conducted by Dr. Harris and Dr. Bradlyn, “77 percent of the students indicated they were ‘very unhappy’ with the new foods served at school.” During the first two months, the lunch participation rate dropped from 75 percent to 66 percent among surveyed students, and milk drinking evaporated by 25 percent.

Dr. Bradlyn said at least in the short term, “the Food Revolution program did have an impact: it was not what you wanted to see. You wanted to see kids drinking milk and eating a nutritious meal.” Dr. Harris added that as Cabell County “rolled the program out they have seen declines [in participation] in other schools. We don’t know if that’s a short-term decline … But one could say it’s not a great thing.”

Even more troubling, according to Dr. Harris, some teachers who participated in the survey commented “that students were not getting enough to eat.” In numerous scenes in the “Food Revolution” kids who kept trying to eat Jamie’s meals are shown spitting out food or dumping nearly full lunch trays into the bin.

Goff called the declines “staggering.” He expressed concern because “improved test scores, decreased tardies, fewer behavioral problems and improved classroom participation … are all byproducts of increased participation in the school meal program.”

A document from the West Virginia Department of Education indicates Jamie’s escapades put Cabell County’s entire lunch program at risk. It stated: “Noncompliance with meal pattern and nutrient standard requirements may result in a recovery of federal funds.” In plain English, the county could lose a large amount of funding because of the failure to meet the standards.

While Jamie did raise $80,000 to pay for trainers to teach cooks in all of Cabell County’s 28 schools to produce the new menus, a document from the county outlined many other expenses that have not been detailed on the show. Meal preparation required more cooks to the tune of $66,000 a year; each school needed new equipment ranging from $20 containers to $2,945 commercial-grade food processors; the county was paying more for fresher items, such as cooked chicken at an additional 10 cents a serving; schools that rolled over to the new program were unable to use “donated food” from the USDA, valued at $522,974.68 last year, with officials bluntly noting, “The program cannot afford to lose this amount”; and the county was losing purchasing power because it was having difficulty getting the fresh ingredients through the buying cooperative it shares with eight other counties.

In a perverse way, Jamie Oliver has highlighted many of the shortcomings of the U.S. food system. But it was like taking a wrecking ball to a termite-infested house to show the rot inside at the cost of smashing the structure. That he failed to meet the nutritional guidelines, went way over budget and put the school district at risk of losing federal funding is bad enough. The fact that so many children stopped drinking milk, dropped out of the program and appeared to be eating less food, strongly suggests they were worse off under his program. As Cabell County has sidelined his menu it’s more evidence that the “Food Revolution” collapsed at the barricades.

That said, school food could be improved tremendously. But it’s a comment on how bad the broader food system and culture is when studies show kids who participate in the school lunch program are eating healthier food than they would otherwise. One teacher who blogs about school lunches points out that “Lunchables” — a package of highly processed crackers, meat and cheese and candy — have become “standard fare in many lunchboxes across the country.”

Who knows how many kids in Cabell County who dropped out of the lunch program after being turned off by Jamie’s food turned to junk food like Lunchables or even worse options, such as the kids in my high school who would make a meal out of French fries, fruit pies and ice cream.

Some will try to find the silver lining by saying at least Jamie is raising the flawed school food program as a national concern. This is true, but he’s so far done it in a way that gives little understanding of the complexity of the issue. By the time Jamie Oliver has moved on to his million-dollar next project, if he hasn’t already, the teachers, students, parents, farmers, administrators and community activists fighting for a completely new school food system will still be on the ground, doing the hard work. Perhaps Jamie should have focused on how they have been struggling for years on a grassroots Food Revolution, rather than hogging the limelight.

Arun Gupta is a founding editor of The Indypendent newspaper. He is writing a book on the decline of American empire for Haymarket Books.

For more of Arun Gupta’s food-related coverage, read “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction” from the July 24, 2009 issue of The Indypendent.

© 2010 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
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