One reality show worth taking a look at these days is “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” the new season of which started airing Tuesday on ABC. Oliver, a British cookbook author and nutritionist who believes strongly that simply cooking our own meals with fresh ingredients would get us a long way toward being a healthier society, takes on the L.A. Unified School District in the new season. His goal: to compel the district to take a hard look at the crap food it’s serving to its nearly 700,000 students.
LAUSD wouldn’t speak to Oliver, much less let him in any of the schools to personally assess the offerings, so he asked parents to bring in samples. Dumped out on the table for the cameras was an appalling array of pre-packaged breakfast pastries, glutinous masses of spaghetti, pizza and other items that could easily be confused with offerings from the local 7-Eleven. (The parents even noted that much of the fare is microwaved in the plastic packaging it comes in.) He went on to demonstrate to parents how the U.S. meat industry routinely takes trimmings formerly reserved for dog food, soaks them in ammonia to kill the cooties and grinds it up to add to the ground beef used to make the children’s lunches.
Oliver is riding a wave that kicked off, to some degree, with the publication in 2006 of Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” In that excellent piece of journalism, Pollan lays out many of the ways in which America’s food supply has morphed over the past few decades from a system that raised and shipped food from farm to table to one all but unrecognizable to an earlier generation. Factory farming, the onslaught of corn and corn syrup into everything imaginable, the “finishing” of cattle on feed lots instead of on the range and, of course, the rise of fast and processed food – all of it has contributed to the rise of obesity in the U.S. and, no doubt, a commensurate increase in ailments related to such. Ubiquitous reports of one salmonella or e-coli outbreak after another are also symptoms of a system that simply concentrates too much of our food production in the hands of too few – whose aim is to make it as profitably as possible. In the background are all those government subsidies, particularly for corn, that drive the beast.
In health-conscious Summit County, we might think we’re above the fray to some degree. But while it may be true that, as a community we’re more active as well as more selective about what we eat, we still buy much of our food from chain groceries that are the end repository of a lot of what Pollan and Oliver say is the problem. We may try to shop organic (if we can figure out what that means, exactly), or attempt to grow our own food (no easy task at 9,000 feet), but ultimately food that’s affordable to the average person or family is what we find at Safeway or City Market or Walmart. The more we learn about how our food arrives on the shelf, the more we puzzle over it in the aisles: What was this irradiated with, we might wonder? What kind of hormones are in this beef?
It’s hard to know, and many food products don’t require strict labeling as to what’s in them and how they were made or processed (ammonia, Oliver pointed out, is not listed as an ingredient in any ground beef product). Which is why it’s critical not only to pressure food suppliers to clean up their act and be more transparent, but for us consumers to ask for more: more information, better quality and a more diversified marketplace that encourages more local and regional food.
It’s coming, if slowly. Not quite a revolution, as Oliver would have it, but a growing awareness. And speaking of schools: Did you know our Summit School District uses a contractor to create all its school lunches? Some company base out of New York that dishes out things like “pizza dunks,” mini corn dogs, chicken nuggets and the like to our kids (I’m reading off the Frisco Elementary menu for April). When my wife and I went to Frisco Elementary for Thanksgiving lunch with our son, the meal was all but inedible – and that’s on a day they knew the parents were coming. Our 9-year-old, who likes junk food as much as the next kid, passes on the hot lunches and we pack one for him every day.
Alas, like LA Unified, Summit’s meal program is behind a somewhat opaque bureaucracy, but we’re working on a series of stories about this program as well as a growing effort locally to do something about it. Some local chefs as well as the Summit Prevention Alliance are interested in trying to work with our schools to provide healthier meals.
Hopefully we’ll have a little better luck than Jamie Oliver in L.A.