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How TV Superchef Jamie Oliver's 'Food Revolution' Flunked Out

After two months, kids hated the new meals, milk consumption plummeted, and many students dropped out of the school lunch program altogether.

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Ultimately, Jamie picked the wrong target. Dr. Carole Harris, who along with Dr. Drew Bradlyn evaluated student responses at Central City Elementary to the "Food Revolution" program, says factors such as sedentary lifestyles, fast-food consumption, family meal patterns and junk-food advertising aimed at children are "a much bigger problem than food served in schools."

Jan Poppendieck, author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, agrees that individual schools and districts are not the root of the problem. She says children who participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) "are more likely to eat healthy food" than kids who don't. Participating children are more likely to consume "low or nonfat milk, fruits, vegetables and less likely to consume desserts, snack foods, juice drinks and carbonated soda at lunch" than students who do not eat the federally subsidized lunches.

Still, there is an opportunity here. About 31.3 million schoolchildren a day participate in the NSLP, which served 5.2 billion meals in 2009 (62.5 percent of the participants qualified for free or near-free meals). Many school systems are doing what they can, but school lunches are a sorry affair, as Ed Bruske of the Slow Cook blog chronicled in one school. Using fresh, local foodstuff to remake school meals based on the most nutritious fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains could dramatically improve our society's eating habits, health, and agricultural and food system.

To his credit, Jamie bases his menu on these foods, but it drove students away. It shows the fatal flaw in his plan. By replacing French fries with broccoli you can't expect to change the whole school lunch system. Students are not being given a choice between a mediocre lunch and fresh, organic cuisine. It's between a mediocre lunch and junk food. No one behind the show wants to confront this reality because ABC, Jamie Oliver and Ryan Seacrest (one of the producers) all profit handsomely from the processed and junk-food industry either through advertising -- more than $15 billion in 2008 from just 15 food companies -- or in the case of Oliver, endorsements.

If Jamie and Co. wanted to make a real difference they should go after the fast-food industry and abominations like the KFC " Double Down," a breadless sandwich composed of two fried chicken cutlets piled with bacon, cheese and "Colonel's Sauce." Then again, a recent issue of the Jamie Magazine reportedly features a "wholesome" school meal of "tuna Waldorf pita with hot vanilla milk, an oaty biscuit, and a banana" that has 643 more calories and 23 grams more fat (pdf) than a Double Down.

To source, cook and get children to eat fresh, healthy local food we would need to double school food funding, get schoolchildren involved in growing and cooking their own food, ban junk-food advertising, slap a health tax on fast food, shift agribusiness subsidies to small, community-controlled farms, provide proper health care and nutrition education, and promote social and cultural changes in how American families exercise and approach, prepare and eat food. Then most children (and adults) would probably make healthy choices. But this would require a real revolution, not one manufactured for television.

Fat Mountain

The mantra of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" is choice. But America's ever-expanding waistline is caused by systemic issues: widespread poverty, sedentary lifestyles, junk-food advertising, a lack of health care, corporate control of the food system, the prevalence of cheap fast food, food designed to be addictive, and subsidies and policies that make meats and sugars cheaper than whole fruits and vegetables.

These factors make choice more of a construct. Many people opt for flavor-intense, highly processed, calorie-dense food because it's cheaper, easier and more fulfilling than cooking healthy foods from scratch. And there's no one helping to educate them and help modify their behaviors and habits because there is much more profit in the huge diet industry and obesity-related diseases than in prevention.

 
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