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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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You've never seen a school lunch like this one, made with hydroponic vegetables and free-range chicken by a brash British superchef. Not that the elementary schoolchildren care. Most sing-song "Pizza!" when given a choice between the gourmet grub and the reheated factory-made frozen pizza. At the end of the lunch period, a mound of chicken sits untouched, and even more is dumped into the trash after a few wary nibbles.

That much we do know from watching Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" reality TV series now airing on ABC. But we're not supposed to know that Jamie is substituting high-end foodstuffs that normally grace three-star restaurants for the cheap, institutional fare dished out in public schools like West Virginia's Central City Elementary School, the setting for the first two episodes.

At the end of one episode, we hear Rhonda McCoy, director of food services for the local county, tell Jamie that he's over budget and did not meet the fat content and calorie guidelines, but she's going to let him continue with the "revolution" as long as he addresses these issues. What is not revealed is that the "meal cost at Central City Elementary during television production more than doubled with ABC Productions paying the excess expense," according to a document obtained by AlterNet from the West Virginia Department of Education.

Jamie landed on America's shores with the self-anointed mission to remake our eating habits for the better. Ground zero is Huntington, West Virginia. In an opening montage we are told the city of 50,000 "was recently named the unhealthiest city in America ... where nearly half of the adults are considered obese" as we see lardy folk shuffle through the frame.

While Jamie's efforts touch on many problems of school food -- from overuse of processed foods to lack of funding to French fries being considered a vegetable -- the "Food Revolution" is a failure because the entertainment narrative is unable to deal with complexities or systemic issues. Instead, all problems are reduced to individual stories and choices. The series may sprinkle some facts and hot-button issues into the mix, but what keeps the viewer hungering for more is the personal dramas, conflicts and weepy moments that are the staples of reality TV.

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.

In short, the "Food Revolution" has flunked out. At Central City Elementary, where Jamie burst in with loads of fanfare, expense and energy, the school has reintroduced the regular school menu and flavored milk because the "Food Revolution" meals were so unpopular. In what looks like a face-saving gesture, Jamie's menu remains as a lunchtime option, but given the negative student response, don't be surprised if it's quietly phased out by next school year. (You can see both menus here.)

 
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