I watched the first episode of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, his new reality TV series. Like Oliver, I could barely contain my dismay.
Unlike the English-born cook and rising food star, however, I didn't have any "luvs" or Old England charm to cover it up. Of course it was only me and my TV.
Oliver is out to change America's school lunch programs. Waking people up to fresh cooking and helping them see the health ills of processed foods. He has started his intervention in the schools of Huntington, West Virginia.
One of the unhealthiest areas in the nation in the Appalachian mountains.
Watching the program, my jaw dropped early on and hung slack throughout. I was agog, but not at the usual culprits: How school's hands are tied to companies who fill their vending machines and under-funded school budgets. No, my rude awakening was a decade after every media outlet has been shouting about the unhealthiness of processed foods, fat, sugar, empty calories and in general obesity, just how seemingly ignorant and ambivalent seemed the people of Huntington.
Parents had no idea their children's school-provided breakfasts and lunches were so utterly unhealthy. But then, many of these parents are obliviously serving the same processed, fast-food at home. The school cafeteria employees seemed utterly unconcerned with what they were feeding these young-growing bodies and minds, and any change Oliver suggested appeared one to ward off.
I get it. This is a poor Appalachian town where most families are trying to stay above the poverty level. All the more reason we need a social revolution as well as a food revolution. We will all pay for what people put on their plate. The poor and ignorant who don't have access to, or means for, fresh foods will pay in quality of life, all manner of health ills, a shortened lifespan and in procedures and medicines they cannot afford or will have to go without. The rest of us will pay in health care costs that are bound to triple merely to cover the fall-out of our obesity epidemic.
Food vs. Food-Like Things
In a small classroom, with a teacher who did seem to care, Oliver asked the elementary students, "How many of you know what this is?" while holding up a tomato. Dead silence. "How about this?" he asked, holding up broccoli. More silence. Cauliflower, eggplant and beets were all mystery foods. You can't blame the kids. They probably never see these foods. Oliver did show them one food they finally recognized - French fries.
Some of the jaw-dropping visuals were the breakfast these youngsters eat at school - pizza and chocolate or strawberry milk. Lunch is more of the same. And up to the age of ten, these students are not taught how to use a knife and fork.
Whipping out his "this always works in Britain" trick, Oliver called several kids into his food lab to show them just what goes into chicken nuggets. First he took the most awful "nasty bits" of the chicken carcass and grinded it in a blender with equal inedibles. We watch the kids "yuck-ing" away, all the while feeling oh-so redeemed they are getting it.
But by the time these little patties of nauseausness come out of the frying pan resembling chicken nuggets all the kids want to eat them. I wouldn't say U.S. kids are any different than U.K. kids, but I would say if it looks like a chicken nugget and one is only seven years old with an undeveloped brain resting at the top of one's shoulders, then it's going to seem like a mighty good lunch.
Here's where children have to be taught. And to that end Oliver's intervention shows some hope as he returns to the class of kids who couldn't identify a single vegetable and their teacher has taught them so well they announce the name of each vegetable with obvious pride.
You cannot watch this program, (Oliver plans to go from school to school to introduce fresh cooking) without seeing our healthcare costs skyrocket over the next 20 years as our kids get diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, kidney failure and more.
How have we become so short-sighted? How can we have a national government that would rather line the pockets of big business and corporate conglomerate food growers and manufacturers at the expense of our kids, ourselves, our health and our pocketbooks? We will be paying increasing taxes and health care costs for this rising obesity epidemic for decades.
How funny that as government allows our food manufacturers to get away with murder, the First Lady is trying to prevent it. Michele Obama says in Newsweek in her mission to take on childhood obesity that our kids didn't do this to themselves. Our kids don't decide what's served in the school cafeteria or whether there's time for gym class or recess. Our kids don't choose to make food products with tons of sugar and sodium in supersize portions, and then have those products marketed to them everywhere they turn. And she's right.
Let's Move her national organization states its mission is to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation, so that children born today can reach adulthood at a healthy weight.
An Intervention With One Family
Oliver brings his program to a close by bringing an entire family to the town doctor - not something they often do. Mom, dad and their twelve year old son, Justin, are all obese. Their four year-old daughter is already on her way.
Justin's weight and beginnings of acanthosis nigricans - brown to black markings on his neck- indicate that he may have diabetes so the doctor tests for it. Justin doesn't have diabetes, but the doctor says he likely will if he doesn't lose the weight.
Oliver begins teaching Justin how to cook, turning it into a little mano a mano "luv-fest" and a confidence-building exercise. If Justin sticks with it, I'm sure by the series' end he will physically be a shadow of his current self and emotionally he will think he's worth the effort to stay healthy.
Now, if only we could do this for all our kids across the nation. Maybe we are on the cusp of a revolution. It's certainly nice to see a man who thinks the same.