Jamie Oliver’s Crusade Against Childhood Obesity

Jamie Oliver in Union Square

When British chef Jamie Oliver came over to America to spend several years as an ambassador for better eating, he brought along high hopes of saving lives in his own, kitchen-based way, and found, not surprisingly, that this is one of the unhealthiest countries in the world. He wrote:

Diet-related disease is the biggest killer in the United States, right now, here today.

What astonished Oliver then, and probably continues to now, is how we devote so much energy to paranoia over homicides, terrorism, highway deaths, and other causes of mortality, while remaining so oblivious to the devastating effects of food-related medical problems. Thanks to giant portion sizes, processed food brimming with additives, and inadequate labeling which Oliver characterizes as “a disgrace,” modern life has wreaked havoc on our dietary standards. And, of course, the government needs to do a better job of keeping the restaurant industry, especially the fast-food sector, in line.

Oliver believes that every child, by the time she or he leaves school, should have enough basic knowledge to cook 10 healthful recipes. And, of course, he has worked extensively with officialdom, trying for improvements in school lunch menus. The chef sees nothing wrong with plain old milk, and is appalled by the way this elemental beverage is tarted up with flavorings, sweeteners, and dye.

But alas… things do not always work out as planned. Change is slow and difficult, even in such a relatively sophisticated and progressive place as Southern California, where the figures of models and movie stars are considered normal, and obesity is even more stigmatized than in most of America.

Maressa Brown wrote:

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which the celeb chef worked with to come up with healthier alternatives for kids’ lunches, can’t seem to make their revamped menus work… Principals report HUGE waste, with unopened milk cartons and uneaten entrees being thrown away… It was a valiant attempt to introduce international tastes to these students, but I’m not surprised it didn’t work out… Turning to ethnic, gourmet cuisine isn’t the answer to making a dent in childhood obesity. Getting creative by healthy-izing the foods they already know and enjoy is.

It seems that the plan, however much Oliver may personally have contributed to it, was too ambitious. According to Brown, nobody in their right mind would try to serve “… curry that looks and tastes like curry, or something as ‘weird’ as Caribbean meatball sauce or beef jambalaya…” in schools, because kids don’t like to leave their food comfort zone.

Instead, the author advises sticking with the familiar stuff like hamburgers and pizza — only with better ingredients. For instance, hamburgers can be made with mostly turkey meat, which is leaner than beef, and pizza can be constructed with whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese.

Another assessment of Oliver’s efforts appeared as an uncredited article from the Center for Consumer Freedom, which gleefully reports on what it does not hesitate to call, several times, his failure. The writer also disapproves of the chef’s “British slang” and of his being a foreigner in general:

Oliver’s approach to food reform was to swoop in from across the Atlantic, make healthier, albeit less appetizing, food and expect everyone to go along with it… Oliver went to America’s fattest city, Huntington, W.Va., and tried to reform school food by replacing pizza, chicken nuggets and chocolate milk with healthier options like roast chicken and unflavored milk. The result? Kids scrunched their noses at the changes, rejected the ‘revolution’ delivered to them on a plate and brought less-than-healthy food from home.

Bottom line, according to this critic, is: While Oliver’s menu was undoubtedly more health-giving, and might have even tasted okay to some, it was too expensive for school budgets to accommodate.

Still, we close with a quotation from Jamie Oliver:

I profoundly believe that the power of food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best bits of life.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Chef Jamie Oliver: Why the US is One of the Unhealthiest Countries in the World,” AlterNet, 03/20/10
Source: “Students Eating ‘Junky’ Food Is Better Than Not Eating at All,” The Stir, 12/23/11
Source: “Taste, cost and health are all factors with food in schools,” ConsumerFreedom.com, 06/12/11
Image by really short, used under its Creative Commons license.

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