Jamie's Food Revolution: Did the Experiment Flop? Would We Listen if It Did?


 Tonight marks the grand finale of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, the reality show that finds the British chef teaching families about childhood nutrition and attempts to make over the unhealthy habits of a rural elementary school. As NEWSWEEK's Joshua Alston noted in his review, the project was fraught from the start:

Food Revolution highlights how much of the war on obesity is rooted in classism. One scene shows Oliver reacting to a newspaper article that suggests he thinks the people of Huntington are cola-swilling rubes who think an apple is just a character in the Bible. So most of his time isn't spent cooking, it's spent convincing residents he doesn't look down on them. It'll be an uphill battle. Advice on better eating isn't evaluated on the quality of the advice as much as on its source. The lower-middle class doesn't want to be lectured by a more well-off person about how easy and worthwhile upgrading one's diet is, because the immediate thought is, sure, easy for you, perhaps.

Tonight's live finale, no doubt, will emphasize how cultural differences were overcome and prejudices shed (though whether the show will discuss Oliver's prejudices and classism as opposed to focusing on the new perspective of the grateful town—how much they've learned!—is questionable). Promos show tearful families interspersed with glamour shots of colorful produce.

It's tempting to think that all America needs to fight poor nutrition and childhood obesity is a peppy British chef and terribly good intentions. But of course, it's not that easy. (Never mind that some people think that childhood obesity itself is the wrong battle to wage.) Still, America is a sucker for makeover shows, so it will be fascinating to see the results of Oliver's experiment on tonight's show—especially considering one report that's already declaring the program, which began months ago, a failure.

Arun Gupta at AlterNet wrote an in-depth article on the aftermath of the program and found that little changed for the better after Jamie's intervention, and that in many cases the show's efforts made things worse. In part, that's because Hollywood narratives can't compete with institutionalized problems:

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.

The day after that report ran, however the Atlantic ran a much shorter piece on how some of the changes had stuck

As support mounted, the town began to make Oliver's project its own. The kitchen Oliver built downtown has since been renamed "Huntington's Kitchen," with local charity Ebenezer Medical Outreach in charge of teaching residents how to cook healthy meals there. Patrick O'Neal, the principal of the elementary school featured in the show, has lost 15 pounds and adopted Jamie's Base Sauce—which offers a hefty serving of vegetables—into his family's dinner regimen.

"If he hadn't come and shined the spotlight on this we would've just continued doing what we were doing," said Yvonne Jones, executive director of the medical outreach group now running Huntington's Kitchen. She said Oliver's presence "helped people to see themselves" and brought together community members who were already working on improving the town's health.

So what's the truth? It probably won't come out on the finale, which is not to say that the program will lie about results, but that an honest analysis can't be expected from what is essentially a televised pep rally. NEWSWEEK will follow up with this story after the finale has aired, and try to get some real facts about what went on in Huntington.

But if the comments on AlterNet are to be believed, facts may not matter: people are angry about childhood obesity, and scared that nothing's being done. They're so eager for any kind of intervention that questioning the effectiveness of Oliver's program has lead to a series of furious retorts. He's accused of being elitist and ignorant, of coddling children and perpetuating America's health crisis.

The reaction to his post reminds me of the similar uproar when the a task force recommended changing mammography guidelines. Because breast cancer is scary, and mammograms are some of the few tools we have that give individual women some sense of autonomy and control over the disease, women lashed out when that option was removed. But instead of being angry that there are so few treatment options for breast cancer, or that we're so unclear about what causes breast cancer, they were angry at the science suggesting they one tool they did have was ineffective.

The truth is, neither food policy or cancer prevention has an easy fix. Both require a long hard look at American institutions, attitudes, and priorities. Both require changes big changes from the top, changes that are often outside of personal control.

This flies in the face of everything we've been taught about our health, and everything we hold dear about personal responsibility. It's an American value, and a great one, to want to fix one's own problems and control one's own destiny. But when it comes to the price and availability of healthy produce; the production and use of carcinogens, the billion dollars available for research or treatment or institutional change, the control we have is tertiary: we can educate ourselves, or write our congressmen, or buy from companies that promote healthy behaviors. But we can't solve our problems by cooking a healthy dinner or making an appointment for mammography.

And that, quite frankly, sucks. But shooting the messenger doesn't help.    






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