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Homegrown Heroes: What Jamie Oliver Needs for His "Food Revolution" to Succeed

As Oliver attempts to bring his "food revolution" to a dietarily disastrous town in West Virginia, he garners more sneers than cheers. But here's why he may succeed.
 
 
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The heated debate over health care reform sparked a slew of nasty name-calling from folks who fear that their taxpayer dollars could somehow wind up financing an abortion, a practice that they equate with murder.

But aren't our taxpayer dollars already killing our children? That's essentially the premise of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution reality show, which debuts on ABC tonight.

The first episode (which had a sneak preview last Sunday and can also be viewed online) highlights the dismal state of our school lunch program, which is woefully underfunded, hamstrung by ham-fisted USDA guidelines, and far too dependent on government-subsidized processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients.

Like the Beatles, this British invasion's brought a charismatic, mop-topped populist to our shores. Only this time, as Oliver attempts to bring his "food revolution" to the dietarily disastrous town of Huntington, West Virginia, he garners more sneers than cheers.

Having freed ourselves from British oppression a couple hundred or so years ago, Americans are apparently still in no mood to submit to a Brit telling us we've got to stop feeding our kids a steady diet of commodity crop-based crap, a practice Oliver labels "child abuse."

I'm not sure what our founding foodie and farmer Thomas Jefferson would find more appalling: the fact that the children of Huntington can't tell a tomato from a potato, or the fact that it takes some limey interloper with a film crew to make folks sit up and pay attention to the shameful state of the American diet.

(Then again, it's possible that Jefferson might be too distraught over the Texas Board of Education's decision to eliminate him from a list of American thinkers who inspired revolutions around the world to worry about our screwed-up food system.)

The series kicks off with Oliver bounding into town like an impudent puppy, tussling with the school cafeteria cooks and shaking his shaggy head in disbelief at the agribiz atrocities they blithely dish up: breakfast pizza; sugary pink milk; dehydrated, chemically "enhanced" mashed potatoes whose reconstitution Oliver likens to the mixing of cement. The "lunch ladies," as he calls them, stare at him in disbelief when he suggests that they ought to try making meals from scratch using unadulterated, wholesome foods.

He befriends a shy, bullied twelve year old whose steady diet of corn dogs, chicken nuggets and fries has him tipping the scales at 350 pounds. And Oliver finds an ally in the local Baptist pastor, who's buried too many members of his congregation prematurely due to diet-related diseases.

But Oliver's blunt, cocky persona rubs a lot of folks the wrong way, generating the obligatory drama that's so essential for good ratings. Does the show sensationalize the awful eating habits of Huntington's residents? Of course. Is it manipulative and mawkish? Without a doubt. Will America tune in to watch it? You betcha.

But will it make a difference? David Letterman doesn't think so. When Oliver appeared on his show Tuesday night, Letterman expressed support for his campaign, but burst the eternally effervescent Oliver's bubbles by stating flatly:

Try as hard as you might, you're never going to succeed because we are living in a culture dominated by the commerce of selling food which is inherently unhealthy.

Lettermen might have been channeling Marion Nestle, or maybe Grist's Tom Philpott, who noted the other day that, "a hugely powerful installed base of companies likes the food system just the way it is, and will fight in Congress to preserve its prerogatives."

Oliver, visibly frustrated by Letterman's skepticism, insisted that he's committed to creating genuine change:

 
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