Two Views of School Lunches: Jamie Oliver's and Mine

Last Sunday evening I watched the sneak preview of the Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. Oliver is a world-renowned chef from Essex, England, who was one of the first celebrity chefs of The Food Network. He's known for his emphasis on fresh, local foods and a casual, no-fear approach to cooking. Oliver was profiled last year in the New York Times Magazine's Food issue, and recently won the prestigious TED Prize for 2010. (Watch his acceptance speech, above.)

Oliver's current mission is to end the obesity epidemic that is the leading cause of death in the U.S. and England. He started in 2005 with a program called Feed Me Better, an attempt to reform school meals for England's children. By 2006, he had received 271,000 signatures on his petition, and won recognition from the media and the government, which promised to improve the food programs in schools.

Now Oliver has come to the U.S. He started what he's calling his Food Revolution at the epicenter of American obesity: Huntington, WV, recently named by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention the fattest city in America. Nearly half of Huntingdon's residents are obese. Oliver's introduction to the school's breakfast and lunch offerings were captured on camera, and shown in Sunday's program. He's visibly horrified to see kids eating pizza and drinking sugared, flavored milk for breakfast. At lunch he watches as kids gobble up chicken nuggets drowned in sauce while they throw away fresh fruit and freshly made bread, the only non-processed items on their plates.

He tries to offer a more healthful choice of roasted chicken and rice; it's not a success. Most children choose pizza, and many who try the chicken throw it away. As the sneak preview sets it up, Oliver has his work cut out for him. The cooks in the school cafeterias work hard and think they're doing a good job. There are reams of USDA regulations on what must be served, like two bread products for lunch; one serving of rice doesn't count. And in the end he'll have to convince the toughest customers of all: the kids, who've been raised on a diet of fatty, salty, sweet non-food products, like McDonald's Happy Meals, which are so well preserved, they don't decay.

Oliver is a charming, affable guy. He works hard in the kitchen, but still manages an easy, laid-back air. (It's easy to tell that he's not used to being disliked or disregarded.) His manner is in stark contrast to the subject of obesity, which he's clearly passionate about. "Dead," "death," and "killing" are words he repeats frequently. He's not going to let the cooks, the families, or the community off the hook for their responsibility to themselves and their children to eat better food. Over the hour, Oliver shouts, raves, despairs, and even cries.

Will he succeed? Two signs point to yes. One, the upbeat scenes for the two-hour premiere which airs this Friday March 26. Two, this is “reality” television. The producers know the outcome, and the show wouldn't air -- would it? -- unless it had been successful. In this situation, I don't mind suspecting that happier things are ahead, and I look forward to seeing how Oliver does it.

With school lunch on my mind, I visited my six-year-old son at Marcy Open, a Minneapolis Public School, and ate lunch with him. His lunch cost $1.75; the same meal for me was $3.50. He chose white milk, after admitting guiltily to me that the strawberry he usually had for breakfast had high-fructose corn syrup in it. The most recent study out of Princeton University has even more bad news about HFCS, so I was discouraged to see it in the chocolate milk as well. The white milk, though, only had vitamins A and D added. Lunch was a palm-sized corn tortilla filled with bean puree and topped with cheese. He and I both chose packets of purple, seedless grapes over the green bananas. I got a roll and salad with dressing as well.

The tortilla was somewhat stale, but the topping was OK, and my son said he liked it though he ate only half. The grapes were dark and sweet, but the salad was an tasteless mix of iceberg lettuce, pale tomatoes, and cucumber slices -- which added a little color. Both dressings, French and Ranch, were "lite," and both had a lengthy ingredient list filled with preservatives and fillers. The roll was soft, made from at least some whole wheat and was slightly sweet. I ate half; my son took only a few nibbles of his.

His school has no kitchen, only microwaves, so they are limited in what they can provide. While I was discouraged by the look of the anemic salad, its ingredients were fresh, and the grapes were quite good. The tortilla with beans and cheese was a nice, more healthful variation on the pizzas so prominently featured in Jamie Oliver's show. I wasn't happy to see the chocolate and strawberry milks with high-fructose corn syrup, but I was pleased not to see an unnecessary sugary dessert.

Overall, I found the school lunch not great, but not bad, either. It was not overly fatty, and offered whole vegetables and fruits as options. I pack my son's lunch every day, and will continue to do so, but having eaten with him at school, if he asks for a school lunch I'm okay with it on an occasional basis.

For more about school lunches, check out this review of Janet Poppendieck's Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, as well as Marion Nestle's recent article in The Atlantic.

One more thing: have you had lunch with your kid(s) yet? Don't forget to take part in Simple, Good and Tasty's School Lunch Challenge. Go, take photos, write about your experience and then send it here. You could win a year's worth of Organic Valley milk plus lots of other prizes.


Kristin J. Boldon lives in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband and two sons. She grew up in Central Ohio, but moved to Minnesota in 1998 from the east coast. (We're glad she stayed!) Kristin has a B.S. in Business from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Religion from Temple. In her so-called spare time, she cooks, bakes, practices yoga, reads, and writes for the Eastside Food Cooperative's newsletter on health and wellness, and for her own blog Girl Detective.