School Food

An excellent program recently
aired on TV in the UK, hosted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (i.e. the
Naked Chef). I’ve never been much of a Jamie fan, mostly because I
found his cooking shows pretentious and unrealistic (okay, maybe I was
just jealous about his hordes of adoring friends always coming by for
dinner…). This program, however, cast him in a new light for me
because what the show centered around was not his cooking per se,
but rather his struggle to bring healthy food into the public schools
of one London borough. The basic premise of the show was that school by
school, Jamie would be introducing the ‘dinner ladies’ (as the women in
white are called here) to his recipes and then slogging through it in
the kitchens with them until (a) they got the hang of preparing real
food, and (b) the kids were actually convinced to eat it. No one
said it would be easy.

stuff these kids were used to loading on their lunch trays is probably
to familiar to most of us if we grew up in the US or the UK. Everything
packaged, reheatable, loaded with starch, sugar, salt… Any
vegetables? Not on your life. These kids had a daily choice of fish
fingers, chicken nuggets, chips (fries), pizza, hamburgers and these
processed meat-product spirals called ‘turkey twizzlers’. Aside from
the turkey twizzlers, it looks remarkably like what I used to eat for
my own school lunches, twenty years ago. What Jamie was proposing to
replace this with was things like thai vegetable curry, morrocan-spiced
chicken legs, spinach foccacia and leafy green salad, and he wasn’t
going to give them any choice about eating it.

The central question was never whether these school
lunches can be considered healthy for kids. In the first
episode, one of the doctors Jamie interviewed stated point-blank that
with current diet trends we can expect this generation of British
children to be the first to die before their parents. He chronicled a
skyrocket in incidences of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, ulcers and
mental and psychological disorders that can be directly attributed to
kids eating habits. School lunches were reviled by everyone Jamie spoke to
as directly contributing to these problems.

The question the show posed, rather,  was if it’s at all
possible to convince kids to eat healthier food. Interviews with
kids showed that many had never even seen things like broccoli or
spinach. Others couldn’t even identify a potato in its natural form.
Things didn’t seem promising for the new menu when kids at Jamie’s
first school were seen dumping plate after plate of untouched food into
the trash. The most sensitive were seen retching into their plates. It
was heartbreaking to watch. My hat is off to him though – he showed
amazing persistence and tenacity, battling day after day to convince
these kids (and the dinner ladies as well!) to believe in his food.

He developed a strategy which involved inviting the pickiest of eaters to help in food preparation and then asked them to eat what they themselves had created. He launched
‘food awareness’ activities at schools which presented kids with an
exposé of what really goes into their favorite foods. He developed
recipes that presented foods in imaginative, colorful, ways,
and placed them on the lunch counter day after day after
day… And what do you know – it finally worked! The kids were
converted. Those we had seen retching two weeks earlier were now
beaming and scarfing down whatever Jamie put in front of them. Teachers
were amazed at how attentive and focused their pupils became. One
parent even said her son’s aggressive outbursts had miraculously
ceased. Jamie also triumphed by
showing it was possible to do this within the measly budgetary
guidelines set by the government, which dictated not spending more than
37p (about 60 cents) per meal.

The issues this program brought to light have created
something of a shockwave through this country. It seems that people
have finally had the wool lifted and seen what disastrous
consequences this cavalier attitude to nutrition is having. Since the
program aired, dozens of local councils across the UK have signed on to
‘better school meals’, and the government has finally responded with a promise of nearly £280 million to
improve school meal quality and pay for more staff to make it. I’m
wary, however, that all the fingers are being pointed at the government
for its cost-before-nutrition policies and none are being turned around
at ourselves.

There are some uncomfortable questions begged by this program,
seeing how relatively easily even staunch junk-food junkies could be
converted over to the pleasures of real food. I’ve heard it so many
times from parents that they just give kids what they want to eat, that
they gave up the struggle because ‘the kids are just so picky’! Is this
really true, or do we make up these excuses to exonerate ourselves from
the responsibility we have to teach our kids good eating habits? Do we
even have good eating habits to teach them? What kind of message are we
sending about the importance of eating well when all the time we’re
willing to invest is what it takes to open and close the microwave
door? Kids all over Europe are developing obesity and diabetes at an
alarming rate; in US schools the overweight by now outnumber the slim.

I don’t know how easy will be to convince other
governments to spend more on school lunches. I don’t know if when they
do it will really be any healthier. I don’t know if it’s possible to
get rid of the vending machines, the fast-food outlets and the
off-campus passes to go and grab some junk somewhere else. All of this
is just treating the symptoms anyhow. What I do know is that our
fundamental relationship with food is formed at home, and
that what we teach and show our children will go a lot further
towards modifying their eating habits than a government budget change
will. I know it may seem like moving mountains, but I do think it is
possible to change kids’ preferences about what
they put in their mouths. Good food nourishes us body, mind and soul,
and cooking and eating it should become such an integral part of our
lives that our children simply don’t know any other way of life.

Photo of Jamie Oliver copyright © Channel 4.