Jamie Oliver is at it again. After the successful run, last year, of his “Food Revolution” first season in Huntington, Virginia, the British celebrity chef has taken his Reality TV show to Los Angeles. His goal: to single-handedly introduce nutritious, delicious fare, on budget, in the LAUSD school lunch program, and to spur the transformation of the fast-food industry.
Those of us who followed his adventures online well before the first episode aired last April, already knew that Jamie’s Los Angeles mission has been an exceptionally challenging one. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in America with 680,000 students, shines in the role of the villain. Its reputation as a hard nut to crack has been long established, and it seemingly has many reasons to hide its food operations from TV cameras (to judge by the appalling “food” that students bring to Jamie in the first episode). Ironically, its stubborn refusal to collaborate on the grounds that Reality TV stirs despicable drama, and its intimidation attempts against Jamie Oliver and whoever is willing to collaborate with him, actually bring a perfect dramatic intrigue to the show.
Against the Dark Side of the Force, our British Jedi who calls everyone “Brother” and “Sis” spares no effort to garner support among parents, and to bring about a Better World of Food to the homeland of fast-food joints. His passion, his creativity and his energy are truly inspiring. The man is on a mission, and a crucial one at that: watch 17-year old Sofia cry as she talks about her diabetes-afflicted family, including her 13-year old sister; gape in disbelief during Jamie’s multiple choice test, as you hear one of Sofia’s Mexican school-mates venture the guess that apples are the main ingredient is guacamole, while other students surmise that butter comes from corn and honey from honey bears. And don’t be embarrassed if your eyes moisten somewhat as Jamie loses his panache in a moment of despair, struggles to keep his composure, and slumps into a chair to confess to a group of parents how tough and taxing a battle he’s been waging.
Now, you can safely bet that reality is more complex than what is shown on TV. The fact is, Jamie Oliver didn’t land in a vacuum where everything must be built from scratch, quite the opposite. And the LAUSD Board are not the only local players who’ve been cringing at his lone ranger mission in Los Angeles.
Unbeknowst to the average viewer of his ABC show, L.A. actually harbors a significant crowd of health-conscious eaters and food businesses, as well as an honorable number of well-attended farmers’ markets. It’s even home to a roster of individuals and organizations who, for years before the telegenic chef disembarked there from his distant Albion, have been engaged in a steady grassroot effort to improve the local food culture in schools and low-income neighborhoods.
“The LAUSD food service has a long way to go. It is a slow, difficult service to work with. I should know: I’ve been doing it for over ten years”, Robert Gottlieb, Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) at Occidental College, told me. The professor was the instigator of the first “Farmers’ Market Salad Bar” pilot in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in 1997. “On the first day, 75% of students, who could choose between pizza and the salad bar, went for the latter. The school food manager who had agreed to the experiment, Rodney Taylor, was blown away”, he said.
In the late 1990s, the program was extended to three low-income schools in LAUSD in collaboration with UEPI’s Center for Food & Justice, after a UCLA-led study concluded that 35 percent of the students at 14 low-income schools were obese or overweight. Deploying it across LAUSD proved challenging, however. In 2001, grassroot organizing among concerned parents, students, teachers and school staff led to the creation of the Healthy School Food Coalition (HSFC). Its early, significant victory, was the “soda ban” voted in 2002 by the LAUSD Board and effective from January 2004 on. In 2003, grassroots efforts led by HSFC and California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA) succeeded in the enactment of the Obesity Prevention Motion, with a view to promote salad bars, fruits and vegetables in cafeterias throughout LAUSD schools, restrict fast food, and set up a cafeteria lunch review panel.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, those good intentions changed little on the ground. In May 2005, HSFC student leaders conducted a comprehensive survey developed by students at over 20 schools. The results were stunning: a majority of students had consumed burned, frozen, and poorly prepared foods within the prior month, and a majority of students had not seen the promised vegetables and salads. They also noted lack of sufficient time to eat during the lunch period. That same year, HSFC and CFPA, as well as some new partners, crafted another motion to address shortcomings in the district’s cafeteria program. After a long struggle with LAUSD food service’s leadership, a scaled-back version was adopted by the Board in December 2005. The final Cafeteria Improvement Motion retained the project’s core principles: to provide more appealing and healthier meals, while adopting a health and nutrition mission for school food and ensuring student integration and input in the implementation process.
Meanwhile, the Farmers’ Market Salad Bar project (that includes fresh local produce, protein, grain, and dairy products) has been deployed to the 15 schools of the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District, and brought by Rodney Taylor to the Riverside Unified School District (a county just east of Los Angeles) where it feeds children in 29 elementary schools. It’s now part of a “Farm To School” program that includes school gardens, nutrition classes and field trips to farms and farmers’ market.
Back in LAUSD, the grassroot movement has been struggling on the path to implementation since the third and last motion to improve cafeterias food passed in 2005.
“HSFC and CFPA are aware that organizing and policy development and implementation is slow and painstaking, even as new campaigns like the Soda Ban can suddenly erupt and point to the possibility of significant change”, states a recent HSFC report. “Organizing around school food issues at LAUSD has been an enormous challenge. The LAUSD bureaucracy has historically been opaque, cumbersome, and slow or resistant to change”, it continues.
There’s no denying that a lot a work remains to be done. And there’s no denying that Jamie Oliver’s charisma, celebrity status and TV show can bring about significant change. Such a scenario already played out in his native U.K. where he successfully took on school lunch reform, while ignoring advocacy groups who had been painstakingly developing programs and campaigns for years.
The most recent illustration of this pattern on this side of the Big Pond was last week’s landmark announcement that LAUSD’s new dairy contract will exclude flavored, sugar-laden milk. This issue happens to be a long-standing battle in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution campaign across America. And it’s fair to point out that the local media buzz he created around it, as well as his cameras, contributed to push LAUSD over the edge and to the other side. This being said, let’s not ignore that 1/ the ground had been prepared for a long time by committed local activists 2/ LAUSD new superintendent John Deasy had publicly supported such a measure before 3/ LAUSD’s dairy contract had to be renewed by June 30th no matter what.
In the end, quite a few L.A. locals would have favored a more collaborative, inclusive approach on Jamie’s part. Sure enough, his difficulties have given him no choice but to mobilize parents and to reach out, behind the cameras, to local players such at HSFC. Too bad, then, that the “Food Revolution” story line focuses on him as the lonely knight without providing any context, leaving out the many anonymous local heroes who have been hard at work on the very same issues for years. One day, Jamie Oliver will pack his family and take his brand back home to England. What long-lasting impact will he leave behind after the cameras are gone? Hopefully, this Friday’s finale will give us a clue.