Jamie Oliver’s Lonely Struggle In L.A.–Not!

Jamie Oliver is at it again. After the successful run, last year, of his “Food Revolution” first season in Huntington, Virginia, the British celebrity chef has taken his Reality TV show to Los Angeles. His goal: to single-handedly introduce nutritious, delicious fare, on budget, in the LAUSD school lunch program, and to spur the transformation of the fast-food industry.

Those of us who followed his adventures online well before the first episode aired last April, already knew that Jamie’s Los Angeles mission has been an exceptionally challenging one. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in America with 680,000 students, shines in the role of the villain. Its reputation as a hard nut to crack has been long established, and it seemingly has many reasons to hide its food operations from TV cameras (to judge by the appalling “food” that students bring to Jamie in the first episode). Ironically, its stubborn refusal to collaborate on the grounds that Reality TV stirs despicable drama, and its intimidation attempts against Jamie Oliver and whoever is willing to collaborate with him, actually bring a perfect dramatic intrigue to the show.

Against the Dark Side of the Force, our British Jedi who calls everyone “Brother” and “Sis” spares no effort to garner support among parents, and to bring about a Better World of Food to the homeland of fast-food joints. His passion, his creativity and his energy are truly inspiring. The man is on a mission, and a crucial one at that: watch 17-year old Sofia cry as she talks about her diabetes-afflicted family, including her 13-year old sister; gape in disbelief during Jamie’s multiple choice test, as you hear one of Sofia’s Mexican school-mates venture the guess that apples are the main ingredient is guacamole, while other students surmise that butter comes from corn and honey from honey bears. And don’t be embarrassed if your eyes moisten somewhat as Jamie loses his panache in a moment of despair, struggles to keep his composure, and slumps into a chair to confess to a group of parents how tough and taxing a battle he’s been waging.

The Healthy School Food Coalition has been campaigning and working with LAUSD for a decade to improve food in Los Angeles schools. Its earliest victory, in 2002: banning soda vending machines.

Now, you can safely bet that reality is more complex than what is shown on TV. The fact is, Jamie Oliver didn’t land in a vacuum where everything must be built from scratch, quite the opposite. And the LAUSD Board are not the only local players who’ve been cringing at his lone ranger mission in Los Angeles.

Unbeknowst to the average viewer of his ABC show, L.A. actually harbors a significant crowd of health-conscious eaters and food businesses, as well as an honorable number of well-attended farmers’ markets. It’s even home to a roster of individuals and organizations who, for years before the telegenic chef disembarked there from his distant Albion, have been engaged in a steady grassroot effort to improve the local food culture in schools and low-income neighborhoods.

“The LAUSD food service has a long way to go. It is a slow, difficult service to work with. I should know: I’ve been doing it for over ten years”, Robert Gottlieb, Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Occidental College, told me. The professor was the instigator of the first “Farmers’ Market Salad Bar” pilot in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in 1997. “On the first day, 75% of students, who could choose between pizza and the salad bar, went for the latter. The school food manager who had agreed to the experiment, Rodney Taylor, was blown away”, he said.

In the late 1990s, the program was extended to three low-income schools in LAUSD in collaboration with UEPI’s Center for Food & Justice, after a UCLA-led study concluded that 35 percent of the students at 14 low-income schools were obese or overweight. Deploying it across LAUSD proved challenging, however. In 2001, grassroot organizing among concerned parents, students, teachers and school staff led to the creation of the Healthy School Food Coalition (HSFC). Its early, significant victory, was the “soda ban” voted in 2002 by the LAUSD Board and effective from January 2004 on. In 2003, grassroots efforts led by HSFC and California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) succeeded in the enactment of the Obesity Prevention Motion, with a view to promote salad bars, fruits and vegetables in cafeterias throughout LAUSD schools, restrict fast food, and set up a cafeteria lunch review panel.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, those good intentions changed little on the ground. In May 2005, HSFC student leaders conducted a comprehensive survey developed by students at over 20 schools. The results were stunning: a majority of students had consumed burned, frozen, and poorly prepared foods within the prior month, and a majority of students had not seen the promised vegetables and salads. They also noted lack of sufficient time to eat during the lunch period. That same year, HSFC and CFPA, as well as some new partners, crafted another motion to address shortcomings in the district’s cafeteria program. After a long struggle with LAUSD food service’s leadership, a scaled-back version was adopted by the Board in December 2005. The final Cafeteria Improvement Motion retained the project’s core principles: to provide more appealing and healthier meals, while adopting a health and nutrition mission for school food and ensuring student integration and input in the implementation process.

Meanwhile, the Farmers’ Market Salad Bar project (that includes fresh local produce, protein, grain, and dairy products) has been deployed to the 15 schools of the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District, and brought by Rodney Taylor to the Riverside Unified School District (a county just east of Los Angeles) where it feeds children in 29 elementary schools. It’s now part of a “Farm To School” program that includes school gardens, nutrition classes and field trips to farms and farmers’ market.

Back in LAUSD, the grassroot movement has been struggling on the path to implementation since the third and last motion to improve cafeterias food passed in 2005.

“HSFC and CFPA are aware that organizing and policy development and implementation is slow and painstaking, even as new campaigns like the Soda Ban can suddenly erupt and point to the possibility of significant change”, states a recent HSFC report. “Organizing around school food issues at LAUSD has been an enormous challenge. The LAUSD bureaucracy has historically been opaque, cumbersome, and slow or resistant to change”, it continues.

LAUSD's new contract with Driftwood Dairy excludes flavored milk, effective July 1st.

There’s no denying that a lot a work remains to be done. And there’s no denying that Jamie Oliver’s charisma, celebrity status and TV show can bring about significant change. Such a scenario already played out in his native U.K. where he successfully took on school lunch reform, while ignoring advocacy groups who had been painstakingly developing programs and campaigns for years.

The most recent illustration of this pattern on this side of the Big Pond was last week’s landmark announcement that LAUSD’s new dairy contract will exclude flavored, sugar-laden milk. This issue happens to be a long-standing battle in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution campaign across America. And it’s fair to point out that the local media buzz he created around it, as well as his cameras, contributed to push LAUSD over the edge and to the other side. This being said, let’s not ignore that 1/ the ground had been prepared for a long time by committed local activists 2/ LAUSD new superintendent John Deasy had publicly supported such a measure before 3/ LAUSD’s dairy contract had to be renewed by June 30th no matter what.

In the end, quite a few L.A. locals would have favored a more collaborative, inclusive approach on Jamie’s part. Sure enough, his difficulties have given him no choice but to mobilize parents and to reach out, behind the cameras, to local players such at HSFC. Too bad, then, that the “Food Revolution” story line focuses on him as the lonely knight without providing any context, leaving out the many anonymous local heroes who have been hard at work on the very same issues for years. One day, Jamie Oliver will pack his family and take his brand back home to England. What long-lasting impact will he leave behind after the cameras are gone? Hopefully, this Friday’s finale will give us a clue.

Related:

The Food Revolution Goes to Los Angeles

Jamie Oliver on Kitchen Herbs

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution
Image: Jamie Oliver demonstrates to a handful of parents how much added sugar LAUSD students consume each week from flavored milk.

79 comments

sandra m.
Past Member 5 years ago

I like Jamie Oliver! There is nothing wrong with what he's doing.....There is something wrong with NOT letting him do it!!

Akin Adelakun
Akin Adelakun5 years ago

Thanks for sharing this information

Zee Kallah
.5 years ago

ok

Aoife O Mahony
Aoife O Mahony5 years ago

thanks

Prochi T.
Prochi T.5 years ago

Jamie is a very good chef and well loved and followed in England. Hope he keeps trying to make people understand him.

Randi L.
Randi Levin5 years ago

You've all confirmed my original statement--many adore him!
yes, he is a CCP. Yet he wastes too much food, doesn't understand Childhood Obesity and gets quite wealthy as he wastes $1000's on ingredients that the kids toss away, that get poured out of a school bus or into a super sized whatever.

The Guy doesn't know what budget restaints implys or how to stay within the means of such. Is he getting wealthier maybe----is he helpingthe kids no not really. What he is doing is demonstratng how to waste----nothing else. Sure many may remember his appearance, but only because his name is large and possibly by the amount sugar wasted out of that bus, but it is a waste nothing more or less.
Will the people watching care, short term maybe a handful.

Personally and professionally I would rather watch him build a grocery store in a produce desert, rather than watch hundreds and thousands of dollars being poured out of a bus which is an ignorant and mindless act as he exergerates how much sugar we each eat per year or whatever period of time he feels like choosing.

Linda Tonner
Linda Tonner5 years ago

I read this stuff so many times, I don't want to go through it again, but want to say that whoever said Jamie is an actor is a twit! Go to Wikipedia and read his bio! Drummer in his spare time, yes, but a CHEF from day one!

Annemarie W.
Annemarie L.5 years ago

I LOVE LOVE LOVE Jamie Oliver and know for a fact that he is a great guy and wants to help others. This isn't just reality TV, his show is more of a documentary which shows how truly corrupt these lunch programs are. Everyone needs to support this show! Yes, I agree that people were already fighting this battle, but this brings it to a whole different level and gets the knowledge out to more people!

Linda Tonner
Linda Tonner5 years ago

@ Marie Therese. I am also a 1941 'baby'. Britain during rationing in WW11. I was so malnourished ( not because my mother couldn't cook) even though we kept chickens, and had a garden, because there simply wasn't enough to go round. Living in London, (actually near the airport) was worse than elsewhere, and my brother and I were often sick. Eventually, our Dr. suggested moving to the south by the coast, so, at least we would have fresh air. Even though I swam in the sea, climbed trees, road my bike, for fun, and to and from school, I grew up excessively thin boned (I don't know what's normal, but my wrists are only 5 3/4" around) Later on, I walked a lot and then became a dancer (showgirl) in Paris and toured for years. Even so, with all that exercise, in my old age I have scoliosis and arthritis in my spine and all my joints.

I am amazed at myself, that it never occurred to me, that all my later problems stem from all that long ago. Of course that was the problem! Without a good foundation, no amount of good (great) food could let me catch up!

Marie Therese H.
Marie Therese H.5 years ago

I was born in 1941. Through the forties up to the seventies, info
on food was almost non-existent. Consequently I suffered from malnutrition which has left damages up till now. My poor mother didn't know better.

Now, with radio and T.V., even the illiterate get great info on foods....Most of the people who eat badly, choose to do so, because taste is more important to them than health!