Los Angeles is the next stop on chef Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the campaign aimed at weaning Americans off processed and junk food. He moved his whole family from London to the City of Angels after the Holidays with a view of replicating there the Emmy-Award performance he gave in Huntington, West Virginia, last year. The “unhealthiest city in America” had given him access to a couple of schools to demonstrate the feasibility of feeding children healthy meals. His tribulations as he was painstakingly implementing necessary changes made for a most gripping and inspiring Reality TV show. More importantly, drastic transformation occurred and is taking hold months after he and his crew left town.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), however, was clearly not inspired by Jamie’s Food Revolution Season 1. So far, they have adamantly refused him access to all schools. “Reality TV has a formula. You either have to have drama or create conflict to be successful. We’re not interested in either,” LAUSD spokesman Robert Alaniz told the Los Angeles Times.
LAUSD is responsible for 680,000 students, 80% of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Unlike Huntington’s schools, which were equipped with state-of-the-art, albeit typically unused, kitchens, most Los Angeles schools do not have proper cooking facilities and are provided meals by central kitchens. One can understand why LAUSD is concerned about its “nutritional” program being exposed for all Americans to see. No doubt Jamie Oliver would have his work cut out for him, were he given access to their food system.
Although Jamie Oliver has reportedly talked about being “deflated”, Los Angeles is not rid of him. He recently opened a public kitchen to offer free cooking classes. He’s also searching for families who are willing to welcome him and his TV crew in their homes as they embark on a journey to transform their unhealthy eating habits.
Meanwhile, he’s also kicking the Food Revolution grassroot campaign into higher gear, in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The ranks of his supporters have already swollen to more than 4,000 people in L.A. while Change.org is helping him circulate a petition requesting that LAUSD “let Jamie Oliver help”.
In fact, there’s hope that the Perfect Storm of Healthy Eating is near.
As recently as last month, Los Angeles implemented a radical food policy by effectively banning new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles, a 30 square-mile section of the city that counts about 1,000 fast-food joints and where 30% of the 750,000 residents are obese (it also trumps the rest of the megalopolis with respect to poverty, diabetes and heart disease). The regulation follows a one-year moratorium first enacted by the City Council in 2008. No new fast-food establishment has opened in the area since then.
“There are people who are accused of being the food police, of trying to control what goes into people’s mouths,” Bernard Parks, a city councilman who represents parts of South Los Angeles and also pushed for the change, told The New York Times. “But we just don’t think that we need to give fast food more rights around here. We don’t think our community needs to have 10 or 15 or 18 ways to eat a hamburger.” The example set in South Los Angeles may even be replicated in other cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia, if the advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine gets its way.
While stopping the growth of fast-food offerings is a step in the right direction, it won’t put an end to unhealthy eating. Families in search of a quick, cheap meal will still patronize the same places they’ve been relying on for years, even though the ambition of elected officials is to see these “food deserts” bloom with grocery stores filled with fresh produce and with healthy ready-meal alternatives to the local deep fried, processed fare.
Choice is of paramount importance. It is not enough to shift habits, however, as no adult will adopt a healthy diet just because he or she is told to. This is where the need for education comes in–cooking and nutrition classes, for adults (in public kitchens) and for children (in schools). This is also where boldness is required: let’s feed children what we know is healthy for them and not what they want, as Jamie Oliver has claimed over and over again, for it is a matter of responsibility.
The debate is on, in the City of Angels. I can’t wait to see how the British celebrity chef and his TV show will bring it to the next level, hopefully with the cooperation of LAUSD.
Image: McDonald's was born in 1940 60 miles east of Los Angeles. A couple of its earliest restaurants in the City of Angels are preserved as historical landmarks.