you say you want a revolution

by Stacy

Have you seen Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution? (If not, the first three episodes are embedded at the bottom of this post.) ABC’s newest reality show might actually do something good.

The premise is that British chef Jamie Oliver is spending six week in Huntington, West Virginia, dubbed “the unhealthiest city in America” by the Center for Disease Control. His goal is to start “a food revolution,” having already instigated changes in school lunch programs in England.

A simple online search will generate plenty of articles about the show. Oliver, of course, is on the publicity circuit chatting up the program. Bloggers, journalists, and trolls are all over it, too.

Photo credit: SpecialKRB

Let’s look at some of the arguments:

Cheeky Brit swings in to save backwards Appalachian idiots who can’t feed themselves.

I can see how this could look bad, but I don’t think it plays out. He didn’t choose Huntington because they’re dumb, he chose it because of the CDC report. During the show I didn’t see anyone portrayed as a hick, I saw them as representative of families all over America.

Melissa McEwan takes affront at Oliver’s “fat shaming”.

I strongly disagree with this article. McEwan’s vitriolic rant is misguided, ad hominem, and unfounded in most cases. Oliver’s beef is not with fat people, it’s with unhealthy eating habits. For the first two episodes he’s working with elementary school children, most of whom look to be of normal weight. He’s not criticizing their weight, he’s criticizing their diet. As well as adverse health effects of eating poorly, the kids featured who are overweight express a desire to be healthier. Yes, they talk about losing weight, but one of them is bullied and both have health problems. I’m not sure how it’s better to tell kids to love themselves but keep eating badly than it is to try to help them be confident and healthy.

The show doesn’t address progress already made in some schools (also asserted by the School Nutrition Association), or the socio-economic problems associated with the school lunch debate

While I think this is partially true, I don’t think the show ever says that every school is like the ones in Huntington. He chose that city for a reason, and it wasn’t because it was a shining example. The downside is that schools all over the country who have better programs are now being inundated with parent phone calls. The parents need to do better research on their own (lunch menus are available online!) before panicking.

As for that blog post from the SNA, one commenter states that “a carton of chocolate milk has 12 grams of added sugars where as a soda has 26 grams of added sugars.” Maybe a carton does, but those kids were holding a “12 ounce single serve bottle.” Not a single serving, just single serve. The nutrition information for the milk is for an 8 ounce (1 cup) serving and still has 26 grams of sugar — so that “single serve bottle” has 39 grams of sugar added. See Mom, I do math sometimes!

The socio-economic aspect is briefly mentioned (extra labor costs of prep work, higher cost of fresh produce versus frozen crap), so I am interested if it will surface during the course of the series. It is a huge issue, so to go halfway through the show’s six episodes and not see it mentioned is odd. I hope it gets discussed so that people who haven’t read much on the topic understand how so many factors affect lunch programs.

The Washington Post calls the show “reality TV pap.”

I can’t really argue with that. Some of the music is a bit heavy-handed (though often amusing) and some of the setups are contrived. The elementary school lunch choice of “good” versus pizza? Duh. But some of the stunts are supposed to be overly dramatic. Telling people that they should eat healthy food hasn’t worked, so now Oliver is turning to drastic measures. While I rolled my eyes a few times, I won’t complain if it gets higher ratings to at least get people thinking about eating better food.

No one should be telling us what we can and can’t eat! “We don’t want to sit around eating lettuce.”

While I found the first two episodes to be a bit over-produced, I thought the third episode was less about “we’re doomed!” and more about showing that kids could eat better if they knew how, and that the desire is there. The high school students in episode three were compelling and really demonstrated that Jamie isn’t trying to force anyone to eat lettuce, he’s trying to help people who want it.

Are you watching The Food Revolution? What do you think so far?

Episode 1:

Episode 2:

Episode 3:

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

katiebug April 5, 2010 at 6:01 am

We’ve been watching it (Friday television is an absolute wasteland). I agree that it’s overproduced. I’m also convinced that the “feud” with the radio personality is an enormous put on. But I like Jaime Oliver; I always have. And I think the show will probably have a positive impact.

I wish he had spent more time finding community allies in the beginning and had worked to embed his solutions more in the community. It was also weird to see racial issues almost completely ignored in a community that clearly has many enormous divisions. (It’s also difficult to ignore the disparity in size between the educated/upper middle class people he encounter and the uneducated/working class people.) But I think some of the problems are, as you suggest, the result of editing and the self-conscious narrativizing of reality TV as much as anything else. The show that we’re watching may or may not bear much resemblance to his three months there, you know?

For all the crap that gets dumped on the South for the way they/we eat, there are still lots of farms, lots of small cities where community matters, and a climate that supports growing your own vegetables. I could more easily imagine a food revolution starting here than in urban Boston or DC.


stacy April 5, 2010 at 6:04 pm

The pilot episode especially is meant to draw in viewers, and without conflict there’s no drama to motivate people to “stay tuned.” I do think the motive (for Jamie Oliver at least, if not the producers) is good, however, and I’m interested in how the next few weeks will go.

I do love how you toss around phrases like “self-conscious narrativizing of reality TV.” =D


Justin April 6, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Hmmm… Did you notice that its executive producer is Ryan Seacrest?


stacy April 8, 2010 at 12:58 am

I did! I also saw a clip of Jamie Oliver on Oprah and Ryan Seacrest was in the front row beaming happily.


Jeff April 7, 2010 at 2:57 pm

I’ve watched all three episodes and agree the first two were a bit overdone (most likely to get people interested in the show). The third one also had some classic reality heartstrings pulled – but I related to these much better than the “gross food” moments in the first two.

Its an uphill battle and I sadly doubt the show will create the change many districts need. Until we as a society increasing our collective health on a hight priority I doubt much can or will be done.

(In our society it has to be eating well cost less to get people interested unfortunately)


stacy April 8, 2010 at 12:59 am

While I agree, I did see this response written by an actual school lunch administrator who has already been doing similar work sans TV cameras that was positive, which I appreciated.

Another post is sort of percolating in my brain addressing some food funding issues that are somewhat problematic. We shall see if I can manage to write something coherent about it.


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