Oct 10Heretic Thursday: Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver changed the way I parent.
Strange to think a British chef would have so much influence over how I raise my kids, right? Yes, I probably would have been a responsive, attentive parent anyway. I’m the sort of dad who gets wooden toys instead of noisy plastic things and insists on nothing but the top-of-the-line Bob stroller. My proudest purchase was the Deuter KidComfort III backpack, the Rolls-Royce of all kiddie hiking backpacks. Dads in the know lust after that thing.
Parenting is about more than stuff, though. Where Jamie Oliver changed my parenting is in the way I think about what my kid eats.
The processed, fatty foods that our children eat have become so enmeshed in our lives that it is increasingly difficult to find foods that are not processed or fatty. My friend Melanie Warner’s recent book Pandora’s Lunchbox does a great job of explaining how deeply embedded in our food system processed foods really are. We simply don’t know what we’re eating anymore.
The simple fact that people talk about organic foods versus traditional foods should give us pause. After all, weren’t organic foods considered traditional only 50 or 60 years ago? Before processed foods, we didn’t even have a name for organic foods. Why? Because we didn’t need one.
It isn’t that we’re making intentionally bad choices; it’s that the bad choices are the default. In fact, it requires more work to know something is a bad choice than to simply take what’s in front of us. Even the food marked “light”, “healthy”, or “organic” may be processed in ways that are unnatural and unhealthy. We eat a lot of crap, and we don’t even know that it’s crap. That’s where Jamie Oliver comes in.
Jamie Oliver didn’t follow the traditional path of the celebrity chef. He opted for something more meaningful—more personal—and he stuck with it. Over a decade and a half ago, Oliver was primed for cookie-cutter celebrity chef stardom. In 1997, he made an unscripted appearance in a documentary at the restaurant where he was a sous chef. Soon after, his Naked Chef television show and cookbooks took off. His celebrity got an additional boost when he was asked to prepare lunch for Tony Blair at 10 Downing St. He soon agreed to serve as the face of Sainsbury stores. He was rich, famous, and ubiquitous.
Then the usual story took an unexpected twist.
In 2002, Oliver opened Fifteen, a restaurant that each year selects 15 young people with a criminal background or history of drug abuse to be trained in the restaurant business. Having had three meals at Fifteen over the last few years, I can tell you that the only way you would know about the employees’ troubled backgrounds is by reading about them in an article like this. What Oliver has been able to achieve with the Fifteen project is remarkable. When he opened the restaurant, though, he was just getting started.
What a lot of Americans might not know is that in 2005, Jamie Oliver launched the “Feed Me Better” campaign to get British schoolchildren to eat healthier foods and avoid junk food. This led to the television show Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, in which Oliver went to a village in Yorkshire try to convince people to cook healthier meals. These moves raised awareness and influenced British policy. Oliver’s next move would be towards America.
People didn’t know what to make of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. I remember seeing it myself and thinking, “some English guy is going to go to Huntington, West Virginia, and try to get them to drop junk food? Good luck with that.” Apparently the people who live there felt the same way. Oliver waged a sometimes polite, sometimes not war with a local radio host, and he drew the ire of the school lunch ladies who saw him as interfering in their work. Eventually, though, he won them over with boyish charm and dogged perseverance.
The next season of Food Revolution took Oliver to Los Angeles, and he brought his family with him. That was probably a good idea. LA’s school officials were no more welcoming to him than the West Virginia lunch ladies. Oliver was quickly banned from setting foot on any of the LA school district’s properties (there is a complex web of reasons for this, one strand being that school superintendents and prison wardens benefit from contracts with institutional providers). Undeterred, he opened a test kitchen just down the street from one of the schools and invited kids to bring their school lunches to his kitchen. The effect was even more dramatic.
There are two moments from Jamie Oliver’s food revolution that really stuck with me. One was a West Virginia mother’s tears at seeing what her children eat in a week piled high on the kitchen table. The other was watching the process that pink slime goes through to be made it available for sale. These were really dramatic, “holy shit” kind of moments that caused me to rethink what I eat and how I think about what I eat. Sure, the kitchen table scene could’ve been edited to make it really, really dramatic, and that’s okay. Sure, pink slime might not actually be bad for you, and that’s fine too. The drama was the point.
What Jamie Oliver did with these and other episodes in the show was take entertainment and use it to pull back the curtain on our values about food.
I think more about my food than I ever have before, and I think a lot about what we feed our children. It isn’t that I don’t eat junk food—I love a good cheeseburger—but I’m thinking about it. I’m conscious of the choices I’m making. When we talk about what our children eat, they may still have some Cheerio’s in the mix, but we are really thinking about that choice, not just having the default choice handed to us. I’d like to think that means we’re making better choices. We’re certainly trying.
Jamie Oliver isn’t perfect. He’s put himself out there enough that he is a target for criticism and second-guessing. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (though I imagine we would get on well). He is someone who could have just enjoyed the ride and been very comfortable. Yet, in a country that loves to tear its celebrities down, Jamie Oliver chose to take on the fatty, salty, highly processed status quo and ask people to think for themselves.
My kid is a little healthier because of that.