THE BLOG
07/06/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

You Say You Want a Food Revolution Adaptive Management?

Jamie Oliver's reality television show efforts to start a "food revolution" in Huntington, West Va., have instigated some fascinating conversations about school meals.

Arun Gupta wrote a fascinating piece on Alternet how, in his opinion, Oliver's effort is a failure because after three weeks of serving these fresher, healthier meals, students still choose the pizzas and other processed foods. Oliver's meals are also over budget and have not always complied with federal nutrition standards.

While Oliver's brash declaration contains some delusions of grandeur, it is premature to call the revolution a failure. Our food choices combine availability, taste, cost, time availability, and attitudes and perceptions of our friends, family and community. Choices are also impacted by larger drivers such as food and agricultural policies and the marketing campaigns of the food industry. Three weeks of hard work by a celebrity chef can certainly help change people's perceptions about food, but it can't begin to shift the larger food system that has billions of public and private dollars contributing to obesity-promoting diets.

After years of work on Midwest agricultural policy and many lunches with my kids in their Minneapolis public school, I have not found any simple solutions for a healthier food system. My spouse and I strongly encourage our kids to eat healthy; sometimes we are proud of their personal food choices, but many times we are not.

And just as it is difficult for parents to get their children to eat broccoli when everyone else eats chicken nuggets, policy change is often a similar, futile attempt to paddle upstream. For example, the marketing of junk foods to children through television advertising obviously needs to be addressed, but regulation by itself probably wouldn't have a dramatic impact on eating habits. Requiring menu labeling, facilitating more produce in corner stores, and providing more nutrition education are also important initiatives, but each one is insufficient for making the changes in the food system that we would like to see.

A growing number of ecologists use a concept called adaptive management for making better policy decisions. Practitioners of adaptive management need to start with a dose of humility; the web of interconnections in an ecosystem is so incredibly complicated that we don't necessarily know the correct steps have the answer to problems such as increasing the number of waterfowl in a region. Rather than creating a multiyear plan and sticking with it, we have far more success if we test assumptions, adapt approaches based on the successes and failures, and learn from what is tried.

Similarly, our food system is a complicated array of interdependencies, and a little humility can go a long way. Despite these risks, the growing health impacts of childhood obesity, diabetes and heart disease make it clear that action is needed. But the more coordinated and well designed we make our food policy efforts, the better chance for success.

Jamie Oliver doesn't have all the answers, but he is providing his reality TV audience with an interesting test case of what may and may not work in a school cafeteria. Next door to my Minneapolis, St. Paul Public Schools have also made great strides in working with local farmers and food companies for healthier school lunches, but what works in St. Paul might not work in your town, let alone any other school district in another part of the country.

This conversation is particularly timely because the Child Nutrition Act, which provides federal funding for school meals, comes before Congress soon, and we have to use this opportunity to create lasting change for our kids. Rather than blindly imposing unachievable standards and inadequate funds on school districts, we could do better for our children by freeing school district food service personnel to unleash their creativity at the local level, essentially providing us with hundreds of school meal test labs. Federal grants for things like farm-to-school initiatives are the catalyst for these efforts.

We can't get around the fact that healthier school meals will require more funding, and unfortunately the conversation in Washington is about adding a few cents per school meal rather than the dimes and quarters that are needed. But if spent well and studied appropriately, the Child Nutrition Act can help make significant progress for healthier children. And help a British chef move forward on his food revolution.