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Jamie Oliver Turns the Spotlight on Our Own Homegrown Heroes

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The heated debate over health care reform sparked a slew of nasty name-calling from folks who fear that their taxpayer dollars could somehow wind up financing an abortion, a practice that they equate with murder.

But aren't our taxpayer dollars already killing our children? That's essentially the premise of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution reality show, which debuts on ABC tonight.

The first episode (which had a sneak preview last Sunday and can also be viewed online) highlights the dismal state of our school lunch program, which is woefully underfunded, hamstrung by ham-fisted USDA guidelines, and far too dependent on government-subsidized processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients.

Like the Beatles, this British invasion's brought a charismatic, mop-topped populist to our shores. Only this time, as Oliver attempts to bring his "food revolution" to the dietarily disastrous town of Huntington, West Virginia, he garners more sneers than cheers.

Having freed ourselves from British oppression a couple hundred or so years ago, Americans are apparently still in no mood to submit to a Brit telling us we've got to stop feeding our kids a steady diet of commodity crop-based crap, a practice Oliver labels "child abuse."

I'm not sure what our founding foodie and farmer Thomas Jefferson would find more appalling: the fact that the children of Huntington can't tell a tomato from a potato, or the fact that it takes some limey interloper with a film crew to make folks sit up and pay attention to the shameful state of the American diet.

(Then again, it's possible that Jefferson might be too distraught over the Texas Board of Education's decision to eliminate him from a list of American thinkers who inspired revolutions around the world to worry about our screwed-up food system.)

The series kicks off with Oliver bounding into town like an impudent puppy, tussling with the school cafeteria cooks and shaking his shaggy head in disbelief at the agribiz atrocities they blithely dish up: breakfast pizza; sugary pink milk; dehydrated, chemically "enhanced" mashed potatoes whose reconstitution Oliver likens to the mixing of cement. The "lunch ladies," as he calls them, stare at him in disbelief when he suggests that they ought to try making meals from scratch using unadulterated, wholesome foods.

He befriends a shy, bullied twelve year old whose steady diet of corn dogs, chicken nuggets and fries has him tipping the scales at 350 pounds. And Oliver finds an ally in the local Baptist pastor, who's buried too many members of his congregation prematurely due to diet-related diseases.

But Oliver's blunt, cocky persona rubs a lot of folks the wrong way, generating the obligatory drama that's so essential for good ratings. Does the show sensationalize the awful eating habits of Huntington's residents? Of course. Is it manipulative and mawkish? Without a doubt. Will America tune in to watch it? You betcha.

But will it make a difference? David Letterman doesn't think so. When Oliver appeared on his show Tuesday night, Letterman expressed support for his campaign, but burst the eternally effervescent Oliver's bubbles by stating flatly:

Try as hard as you might, you're never going to succeed because we are living in a culture dominated by the commerce of selling food which is inherently unhealthy.

Lettermen might have been channeling Marion Nestle, or maybe Grist's Tom Philpott, who noted the other day that, "a hugely powerful installed base of companies likes the food system just the way it is, and will fight in Congress to preserve its prerogatives."

Oliver, visibly frustrated by Letterman's skepticism, insisted that he's committed to creating genuine change:

I made five shows in Great Britain, and I got a billion dollars out of the British government, and we changed law, and we got the junk out of schools, and it can happen here--it can.

Some good food movement foot soldiers, who've been striving for years--and even decades--to change the way we feed our kids in the face of tremendous obstacles, bristled at the hubris of this famous Brit landing on our shores and declaring "his" food revolution.

In his recent TED talk, Oliver did acknowledge the important work being done by the real food revolutionaries who are transforming our fatally flawed food chain:

It's local cooks, teaching local people, it's free cooking lessons in the main street...this is real, tangible change...around America, there's plenty of wonderful things going on, there are angels in America doing great things in schools: farm to school set-ups, garden set-ups, education. There are amazing people doing this already.

The problem is, they all want to roll out what they're doing to the next school, and the next--but there's no cash. We need to recognize the experts and the angels quickly, identify them and allow them to easily find the resources to keep rolling out what they're already doing and doing well. Businesses of America need to support Mrs. Obama to do the things that she wants to do.

But these local heroes were nowhere to be found in the premiere of Oliver's reality show, presumably because the show's producers figured those folks wouldn't provide the necessary drama. They did consult with folks like Debra Eschmeyer, the communications and outreach director for the National Farm to School Network. I have the pleasure of knowing Debra, a passionate and charismatic advocate who exemplifies the kind of grassroots activism that Oliver championed in his TED talk.

Eschmeyer was disappointed that Food Revolution's first episode ignores "the myriad of obstacles to bring fresh local food to the lunch room, most of which can be overcome, but it can't be done in a couple weeks even with star-studded British flavor and money. Food service staff are doing the best they can with what they receive; double the reimbursement per meal, give the kids enough time to eat, give food service proper equipment to prepare meals, and many would do better than what Jamie cooks up."

Debra expressed her hope that "at some point he highlights the work of the many local heroes so he doesn't just make people feel guilty and defensive, but instead empowered and informed on ways to make positive change."

Well, Debra got her wish; after talking with her yesterday, the show's producer decided to solicit videos from 'real food patriots,' like Debra herself, who were nowhere to be found in the first show. Here's the message from the producer:

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" wants to hear about what you are doing to start your own Food Revolution!

Whether it's planting your own vegetable garden, "passing it on," cooking dinner for your family, or if you just want to bring attention to something in your community that needs change - we want to hear about it!

E-mail us a high definition video (most newer consumer cameras these days are HD. If you don't have access to HD, the higher the resolution, the better) and answer the following:

Who are you and what is the problem you're facing in your school and community?

How are you currently, or how do you plan to improve the state of affairs?

How has Jamie's work inspired you?

What do you want to say to Jamie?

E-mail your response to: JOFoodRevolution@gmail.com

Please include your name and contact information - you may be selected to be featured on Jamie's new TV show!
You can also post written responses on their blog here:

I'll let Debra have the last words:

I hope that this next week will result in a massive amount of grassroots footage to not only show Mr. Oliver the U.S. food movement, but also Mr. Obama. Let's move!

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