Food for Thought: Jamie’s ‘School Dinners’ hits USA

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In a recent Channel 4 documentary, Jamie ‘The Naked Chef’ Oliver spent several months in the town of Huntington West Virginia. The reason for selecting this town for his American Food Revolution was that it was deemed, according to surveys, as the unhealthiest town in the whole of the United States of America. Considering the United States is the country with the most obesity problems, it could be argued, and is by a local pastor in the documentary, that Huntington has the biggest weight related health problems in the world. So, in Jamie’s thinking, if he can change the eating habits of this town, he can do it anywhere. As admiring as it is that he dived in at the deep end, we find that on several occasions he almost bites off more than he can chew, so to speak.

Jamie’s quest in West Virginia was to replicate his mission at the schools in England in Jamie’s school dinners in which he set out to change the menus and cooking methods in schools across the country. According to Jamie’s official website, after Huntington he will be attempting to change eating habits in Los Angeles, clearly a mammoth task for one man. With this in mind, much hinges on whether he succeeds in West Virginia, and for all intents and purposes, during the six episodes, he pretty much does.

What follows in the series is a collection of shocking, revealing and sometimes emotional moments. Along the way we meet a myriad of characters including DJ Rod Willis; the voice of Huntington, ice cold Rhonda McCoy; director of food services for schools and last but not least Jamie’s nemesis, Alice the school dinners cook at the elementary school at which Jamie kicks off his campaign.

The fundamental and deep seated problems that Jamie was to overcome during his time were highlighted during a demonstration for some elementary school children. Jamie practiced his tried and tested method of showing the origin of foods by blending what is essentially the carcass of a chicken, covering it in breadcrumbs, frying it and serving it on a plate. It was, after this, a chicken nugget and the reaction from British children during the same display was one of disgust. “So, who wants to eat these now?” Jamie asks the American elementary school children. They proceed to enthusiastically raise their hands, without exception. Jamie’s face was, predictably, a picture.

During the series Jamie comes up against red tape and those that misconstrue his intentions, namely DJ Rod Willis who, at first believes that Jamie is dictating a change of habits that are simply their way of life. But after some emotional scenes involving oversized coffins, an obese family and a teenager with only several years to live, DJ Rod is converted and jumps aboard the Jamie express. Alice on the other hand takes a lot more work to convince but eventually climbs onboard as well and the series all but ends with a radical overhaul of school food policy in Huntington.

Unfortunately, Jamie returns to Huntington three months later and finds that although most of the changes are still in place, a lot of the parents have been ‘brown bagging’ their children’s lunches and filling them back up with sugary, unhealthy snacks. But before we roll our eyes and tut, there are disturbing echoes from the parents in England passing fast food to the kids through the bars in school gates after similar changes took place. If this tells us anything it is that we all bite from the same social apple and the fast food culture is a worldwide issue, as long as globalisation predominates.

Myself, I found the whole series unnerving. I could not help but draw haunting parallels with larger global issues that surround us, namely the problem of climate change. Many of us are guilty of cognitive polyphasia, which means that whilst we want change to be made for the better, we do not want to give up our luxury goods and conveniences. In much the same way the parents of Huntington rallied around Jamie for the changes, but when it came to the crunch preferred the convenience of ready meals and fast food over some time in the kitchen. It would seem we are all plugged into the global machine and severing those ties on a large scale will be a lot harder than the culinary amendments that Jamie Oliver is making.

The truth is Jamie Oliver is a rare commodity, and on the surface seems to not have any selfish motives behind the programmes he makes. What he is attempting is truly admirable and he seems to have no fear of bureaucracy, only the want to pull us out of the comfy chair and help us to take back control of our lives.

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