After a six episode engagement on ABC, Friday night marks the conclusion of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.
However, the US is still struggling to get a decent conversation on the state of our food culture off the ground.
The British TV chef came to West Virginia with a clear goal in mind: tackling the complicity of school systems in producing heavy, fattening foods for children to consume during school hours. His approach was based on his success in reforming midday meals in UK schools from processed junk food and limp vegetables to freshly made, organic, veggie-filled feasts for the taste buds. While critics have railed against the high cost of his methods, Greenwich and other areas of England have shown a direct benefit to the students after following Oliver's regimen.
The environment in the US seems ripe for Oliver's message: nutritional screeds such as The Omnivore's Dilemma, How To Cook Everything and In the Defense of Food have topped book lists for the past couple of years and first lady Michelle Obama has made combating childhood obesity her pet issue for the rest of her term in the White House. Still, it's going to be a tough road to hoe. The severity of the problem is documented in the morbidly entertaining Fed Up With School Lunch blog, where one brave teacher eats school lunch along with her students each day. Here are a few sample observations:
The apple was delicious and the garlic bread was good, a little chewy. And the chicken nuggets were "eh". Knowing that they could be only 30% to 50% chicken makes it harder for me to eat them. I'm fixated on the fillers.
So let's get back to what I ate today. Popcorn chicken. After the chili and the meatball sub I had earlier this week (which I thought weren't too bad), I should have seen this coming. I slathered the chicken bits with bbq sauce. When that wasn't enough I randomly squirted ketchup all over them. It got very messy and so did I. It's not that they tasted bad per se. It's just that after I read that chicken nuggets contain roughly 50% chicken (and now I can't find the citation), I struggle trying to get them down. Last week was pretty chicken-heavy (chicken patty and chicken nuggets) and I'm not complaining because I do prefer chicken over beef. It just seems like a lot of the same.
If I created a life-sized collage of me using photos of all school lunches I've eaten, I think my arms would be made of pizza and carrot sticks would be my fingers. One leg would be beef patties and the other chicken. My shoes would be whole wheat buns! A torso of fruit cups with my head and neck composed of chicken nuggets and cheese sandwiches. Tater tot and hot dog belt, pasta for hair, apples and pears for breasts, miscellaneous veggies for facial features and bananas for earrings. I am what I eat!
Considering school lunches feed over 31 million children in the United States, and for low-income students may be the only guaranteed hot meal they eat each day, the situation is dire.
However, in order to spark a true revolution, we must also contend with a uniquely American problem (albeit, a problem that is creeping across borders each day): the culture of convenience. Since many American eaters are divorced from grand food traditions that developed in other nations and the American South, there was an easy in-road for corporations to exploit – America is indeed a "fast-food nation". A large part of the battle is getting communities not only to see unprocessed, fruit and vegetable-based dishes as an option, but to see food culture (not just taking the quickest and cheapest option) as a part of our heritage that needs to be preserved.
In his book Vegan Soul Kitchen, eco-chef and foodie maverick Bryant Terry relates:
For most people, African American and Southern cooking is synonymous with meals organised around fatty meats with overcooked vegetables and fruits playing a minor supporting role. But when we take a step back and remember that – before the widespread industrialisation of food in this country – African Americans living in the South included lots of fresh, nutrient-dense leafy greens, tubers, and fruits in their everyday diets, what I am introducing here is not that much of a stretch. [...]
My grandparents raised their own chickens, kept gardens that produced most of their vegetables, and maintained mini-orchards in their front and backyards. Several of their neighbours did the same. Now the fowl, plots, and fruit trees have disappeared from their South Memphis neighborhood. And many of the denizens of this community are suffering from hypertension, diabetes, and other often preventable, diet-related illnesses. My memory of a "greener" South, as explored in my essay Reclaiming True Grits, reawakened my desire to write this book to help people remember that part of our legacy. Like most Americans, African Americans saw the globalisation of agriculture and industrialisation of food as a good thing. Cheap. Fast. Convenient. It all seemed to make sense. But today, we recognise the fallout from that food system – on our bodies, spirits, cultures, and communities – and it's time now to get back to the land.
The entire United States needs to embark on a taste bud re-education, and an examination of what convenience means. This will not be easy – after all, wrapped up in any conversation about food and health are larger social issues. What types of foods are subsidised and what types are not? Why did it become cheaper to buy vegetables from various places around the world, instead of grow them? What role does big business play in shaping and moulding how society perceives food? (As an aside, the UK has a total ban on junk food advertising during kids TV programmes – no such law currently exists in the US). Class also looms large in this debate – how do we ensure those who have the most food instability and the highest risks of malnutrition are not penalised with cheap freeze-dried and processed fare? A significant first step is what Oliver has done though his television programme – however, to continue the momentum, a multi-prong, community based effort is needed.
He has been ridiculed by the chat show host David Letterman, accused of high-handedness by a local radio DJ and reduced to tears by recalcitrant fast food-consumers during his war on American obesity. He has even dressed up as a giant pea pod in an attempt to turn the US on to his healthy eating agenda.
So Jamie Oliver will doubtless be relieved to hear of a timely reminder of his more gilded reputation back home. Today an audience of prestigious economists was told that the healthier school dinners introduced by the celebrity chef had not only significantly improved pupils' test results, but also cut the number of days they were off sick. The effects, researchers said, were comparable in magnitude to those seen after the introduction of the literacy hour in the 90s.
The proportion of 11-year-olds in Greenwich, south London, who did well in English and science rose after Oliver swept "turkey twizzlers" and chicken dinosaurs off canteen menus in favour of creamy coconut fish and Mexican bean wraps, according to a study of results in the south east London borough.
The number of "authorised absences" — which are generally due to illness – fell by 15% in the wake of his 2004 Feed Me Better campaign, brought into the nation's sitting rooms via the Channel 4 series Jamie's School Dinners.
But the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society also heard that the poorest pupils – those who are eligible for free school meals – did not seem to benefit. Instead it was mainly children from more middle class homes who saw their scores boosted after Oliver's junk food ban was implemented.
The researchers estimated that the proportion of students who got level 4 in their English Sats at key stage 2 increased by 4.5 percentage points after his intervention.
The percentage who got level 5 in science was up 6 percentage points, they reported.
Oliver described the research results as "fantastic". "It's the first time a proper study has been done into the positive effects of the campaign and it strongly suggests we were right all along," he said.
"Even while doing the programme, we could see the benefits to children's health and teachers. We could see that asthmatic kids weren't having to use the school inhalers so often, for example.
"We could see that it made them calmer and therefore able to learn."
The chef said it was further evidence that faster movement was needed towards improving take-up of nutritious, home-cooked school meals across the country, by training dinner ladies, getting kitchens and dining halls up to scratch and educating children and parents.
The presentation of the findings comes at a convenient time for Oliver, whose US version of the Greenwich project, currently being shown on the ABC network, has seen locals in America's unhealthiest city, Huntington, West Virginia, give him short shrift.
"We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day," radio DJ Rod Willis snapped at Oliver during the first episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. "You come to town and you say you're going to change our menus. I just don't think you should come here and tell us what to do."
Last week the Essex-born chef appeared on the Late Show, and was forced to listen to host David Letterman predict he would fail in his crusade to transform people's health. Letterman insisted diet pills were the only way to lose weight in the US.
Michèle Belot, of Oxford university's Nuffield College, and Jonathan James from the University of Essex, monitored results and absences in five neighbouring local authorities – chosen for their socio-economic similarities to Greenwich — as a control. They looked at figures from 2002 to 2007 – skipping the school year 2004/5, when the new menus were introduced.
The effects seen, they said, were particularly impressive given that they emerged within a relatively short period of time, and that the campaign was not even directly targeted at improving educational outcomes.
"As indicated by the relative fall in absenteeism, it is likely that children's health improved as well, which could have long-lasting consequences for the children involved not only through improvement in educational achievements, but also in terms of their life expectancy, quality of life and productive capacity on the labour market," the study said.
A survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers presented at its conference in Manchester today found that almost seven in 10 union members thought all primary school pupils should be given free school meals.
The same number wanted controls in place to limit the sale of chocolate, sweets, crisps and deep fried foods.
A third said the dining room at their school was unsuitable, and 56% said they had seen pupil behaviour deteriorate after eating food with a high fat or sugar content.
James said the research team was now looking at why children from poorer homes seem to miss out on the benefits of the changes brought in by Oliver.
"This is a source of concern, in particular in light of using school meals as a way of reducing disparities in diet across children," the report said.
It suggested the difference might be because those from richer backgrounds adjusted more easily to changes in school meals, or because the less privileged students were more represented among those getting lowest scores, and improvements were harder to achieve for those at the bottom than in the middle.
Meanwhile there are signs that the tide in the US may be turning in Oliver's favour just as it did in Greenwich, where initial hostility from dinner ladies eventually turned to adoration. More than 100,000 people have signed an online petition supporting his campaign for better school food. After he appeared with Oprah Winfrey on Friday, 7.5 million people tuned in to watch his show.