Why Jamie Oliver’s new show matters
(even if you’re not a food snob)
“Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” series premieres on ABC with a sneak preview tonight*, and already the criticism has begun.
To wit: Jamie Oliver is a food snob. He’s a rich food snob. And, did you know, he’s British?
Who the hell cares?
Yes, he’s a celebrity chef. He’s pretty and charismatic and he likes grand gestures. But he’s also in possession of some astonishing facts, namely that — because of the way they eat — our kids are on track to have a shorter lifespan than we do (original study here). He’s credited with overhauling British school food. And if you can watch his TED speech without choking up, well, I’m not sure we could be friends.
Huntington, W.Va., where the show takes place, may have been dubbed the unhealthiest city in America (from a 2006 CDC study), but it isn’t all that different from where the rest of us live. We’re all subject to a food system where government-subsidized manufacturers churn out overprocessed, chemicalized food in the name of profit — food that is so unhealthy as to be dangerous. Where schools treat children like mindless eating machines who aren’t worthy of real food. And where low-income communities and neighborhoods face limited access to healthful food. It’s shameful.
This may be a Hollywood reality show with its attendant pomp and slick editing, but this is our reality, people.
One of the more thoughtful critiques, from Newsweek, explores how the good-food battle is rooted in classism. From personal experience helping to advise an urban farmers’ market, I know there’s some truth in that. And if you’ve ever watched the school food-reform movie “Two Angry Moms,” you’ve seen that one of the biggest barriers to change is parents who view criticism of school food as criticism of themselves (since they may not eat any better at home). Plenty of people think we high-minded food folks ought to butt out and let everyone eat what they want.
Another piece, from the Washington Post, takes an even harsher stance. Here’s staff writer Hank Stuever: “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of trying to get the nation to eat right. It’s tempting to just let folks keel over in a puddle of kountry gravy if they like, dead from clogged arteries or scurvy (or both).”
But really? We should bow to the status quo just because change is hard? We should shut up because we don’t know everything there is to know about nutrition, even if a lot of what we do know is indisputably hurting our children’s health? We should be so wary of insulting culture and tradition that we don’t say anything when what we have to say might help people? Really?
For their part, the Huntington residents profiled in the show don’t seem to think they come off as rubes (two takes: the local Herald-Dispatch newspaper and a local news website). Even Rod Willis, the lettuce-mocking radio host who tweaks Oliver on the show, has calmed down.
As Willis tells the Herald-Dispatch: “I had to do research to find out who the hell (Oliver) was and I didn’t like him acting like ‘I’m some big famous chef and you have to listen to me.’ I was thinking why couldn’t they send us Paula Deen,” Willis says.
“After he was here for a while I was OK with it. Once you learn something you can’t unlearn it. If eating healthier makes you feel better about yourself and gives you more energy, obviously you want to help yourself and make yourself feel better.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. What are your thoughts? Are you planning to watch the show? And if you’re reading this after the fact, what did you think?
* “Episode 101” premieres on ABC on Sunday, March 21, at 10 p.m. ET. That episode will repeat on Friday, March 26, at 8 p.m. ET, followed by “Episode 102” at 9 p.m. ET. The series runs for six episodes.