“The British are coming!” I could only imagine this forewarning was intoned countless times in the city of Huntington, West Virginia well before the famed Naked Chef Jamie Oliver ever set a foot on West Virginia soil. Judging from just a few hours spent with the enormously popular reality television show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” citizens of Huntington were apprehensive and leery of the sort of “revolution” Oliver was bringing to their shores.
As a brief overview, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is a six-part reality show on ABC in the style of “Extreme Makeover” but instead of plastic surgery and wardrobe changes, the bewildered citizens of blue-collar Huntington are getting a diet and nutrition overhaul. Recently, the city had been singled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the nation’s unhealthiest (read fattest).
Oliver, who has had phenomenal success in helping to reform the British school lunch program and middling success in getting people to eat things like tagine and pak choi, has made the transformation of this towns shoddy diet his personal raison d’etre. His mission is steeped in the sort of sincerity you are not likely to stumble upon while watching your run of the mill reality TV. Oliver pleads, he hectors, he even threatens to cry in an effort to inspire a population that would rather bury themselves in chicken nuggets followed by a chocolate milk chaser than subject themselves to a life bereft of trans fats and “brown food.”
His first attack is on (or more appropriately for) the youngest residents of Huntington, and those most at risk, as well as most apt to change. Oliver, with only the best intentions, immediately alienates himself and makes himself persona non grata among the school cafeteria crew (or the “lunch ladies” as he mistakenly likes to call them) when he suggests a menu that would require twice the work to serve up fresh and, relatively, healthy alternatives to fries and pizza. The blowback Oliver endures from staff, school administrators and children alike is both amusing and heartbreaking.
The show is heartbreaking because, while I could not be more in support of Oliver’s mission and passion, I can plainly see the folly in his approach and his inherent lack of comprehension of what it means to be an American consumer in this day and age. Sure, a mother of three morbidly obese children can appreciate the looming specter of death when Oliver tells her that her trusty deep fryer is just the thing that is killing her family (in a moment of bravado absurdity, Oliver assists the mother in burying the deep fryer in the family’s backyard).
These moments are effective, but rare. What Oliver seemingly doesn’t understand is this country’s current politicization of food, and everything and anything else that can be politicized. The whole red state vs. blue state ideological and class struggle has unfortunately become very real, and the working class (especially those centered around those decidedly red states) doesn’t really like to be criticized for their drive-thru ways (and certainly not by a British interloper like Oliver). At no moment is this more apparent than when Oliver goes to visit the Rocky n’ Rod morning show at a country radio station (aka “93.7 the Dawg”), where DJ Rod rips into Oliver and says, “We don’t want to sit around and eat lettuce all day. Who made you king?” Also, another aspect that is sadly missing from the “Food Revolution” is any serious discussion about the role the American food industry and its lobbyists might play in the makeup of school lunches and in the formulation of the guidelines set for them by the Agriculture Department
To his credit, Oliver does make some headway. In his goofy hangdog way he endures and endears himself to much of the school administration and students and holds onto the project for dear life. He gets on the front line with the young students showing optimism and approval by issuing stickers that read, “I Tried Something New” to every child that chokes down a mouthful of what he is dishing out (no doubt it is likely delicious, but undoubtedly strange and foreign to children raised on microwave-ready food). But three episodes into the show, my optimism is held in reserve, as “food revolutions” like Oliver is touting don’t take hold in the derelict shambles of American nutrition. They more than likely originate and thrive in communities that intrinsically understand the values Oliver is touting, as well as the necessity of good nutrition. By singling out a community as the worst at anything, and then making their shortcomings your pet project, you are likely setting yourself, and everyone involved, for failure. But it, without a doubt, sure makes great TV.
Anyone a fan of the “Food Revolution”? Do you think Oliver’s approach is effective? Is it worth the fight? Or should we be minding our own arugula?