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Food Fighter: Freedom of Choice vs. Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution?

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I'm always willing to cop to my somewhat retrogressive knee-jerk reactions, so here goes.

Last night I happened to catch a few minutes of the season premiere of chef Jamie Oliver's ABC reality series, Food Revolution. The basic premise of the show is that Jamie travels across America doing essentially the same thing he's become both famous and notorious for in his native Britain: trying to educate people about the dangers of the processed foods they're eating and drag them, kicking and screaming if necessary, toward a more healthy diet, all in the name of combating the dreaded "obesity epidemic." It should surprise no one that Jamie concentrates a substantial portion of his effort on what kids eat -- specifically what schools feed to kids. Obviously at face value this is an inarguably noble cause.

It should be said that I'm actually a big fan of Jamie Oliver's. I used to watch his BBC show The Naked Chef semi-religiously; I bought several of his cookbooks and I always admired not only his technique as a chef but his philosophy of teaching people to cook rather than simply training them to adhere to recipes and mimic styles. In other words, I'm always more than willing to give Jamie the benefit of the doubt. But something about the tone of last night's show, and maybe the show in general, really irked the hell out of me.

You'd be a fool to deny that we have a very serious problem with obesity -- particularly childhood obesity -- in this country. While I've argued plenty of times before about the media's irrepressibly giddy lust for slapping the term "epidemic" on any and every problem that affects a large enough group, there are far too many obscenely overweight people across this great land of ours, and if you think it's simply a personal decision that affects no one but them and the Wal-Mart scooters whose suspension systems they push to the point of collapse, think again.

The fact is that you and I ultimately pay for the health issues all that weight brings with it, even if we're not the ones packing on the pounds (which statistics say we likely are at this point). We pay via higher health insurance premiums, higher prices from businesses forced to either accommodate the obese or work around the days off from work they're inevitably forced to take, and more strain on Medicare. According to one estimate, if the obesity rate in this country continues to climb, by 2018 it will cost America $344 billion annually. So, yeah, it's in our collective best interest as a nation to slim the hell down.

So why did it bug me to watch Jamie Oliver condescendingly castigate the owner of an independent restaurant in Los Angeles for having the temerity to serve milkshakes that contain actual ice cream as opposed to, say, yogurt and fruit? That's exactly what happened at one point, with Jamie seeming exasperated at the notion that someone would want to serve a customer a milkshake if that's what he or she orders.

"That's not a milkshake; that's a smoothie," the restaurant owner says. "But why does it have to be? It's a milkshake," Jamie responds. I get that Jamie Oliver is undertaking the herculean task of trying to get us to change the way we think about the food we eat on a level that's DNA-deep, but I couldn't help but think that the hapless guy trying to run the restaurant aimed at, oh I don't know, giving people what they ask for, was right and his inquisitor from across the pond was wrong.

People should be encouraged to buy smoothies rather than milkshakes; each of us should know what one can do to our health versus the other. But if somebody wants a milkshake, that person should be able to get a freaking milkshake. Once again, while there's an argument to be made that I'll eventually pay for the ingestion of too many shakes one way or the other, I'm not sure I or anyone else should be denied something that's harmless in moderation just because somebody else can't control him or herself and treats fatty foods like cocaine.

Jamie Oliver's biggest push, though, is something he and his army of acolytes have been following up for the last 14 hours or so via the circulation of a petition on Twitter. Jamie's white whale of the night -- one which keeps jumping out of the water as the series progresses -- was of course school cafeterias, mostly because they've got a captive audience and have a monumental impact on how someone's diet develops throughout his or her life.

So what do Jamie & Co. want? No "sugary milk" in school cafeterias. In other words, they want to see chocolate milk, strawberry milk, any milk besides just plain old milk banned. Again, I get the argument that little good comes from giving kids milk that pumps them full of sugar and empty calories, but is an outright ban on it really the way to go? What about the child who just likes chocolate milk and can actually handle drinking a carton of it without ballooning into a mocha-colored Violet Beauregarde? At what point do we draw the line? At what point do we decide to stop protecting some at the expense of the legitimate desires of others?

I'm all for healthier options at America's schools; that and food education are musts at this point in our evolution as a nation. But there's a difference between an option and a mandate. And while it makes sense for Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolutionaries to fire all guns at once with the understanding that it may be what's required to effect even a small amount of necessary change, there's still something decidedly draconian about pushing to reflexively relieve us of our freedom of choice when it comes to what we eat.

Now, who's up for an In-N-Out Double-Double?

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