The Revolution Was Televised: Looking Back at Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

Over the last two months, ABC aired Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, a six-episode reality series documenting the English chef's mission to improve school food in Huntington, West Virginia. (The preview episode was the subject for one of my previous posts for Simple, Good and Tasty.) Was it a success?

It was for ABC. The preview episode, which aired after Desperate Housewives, attracted more than 6 million viewers. But that was nothing compared to what followed.

For the second episode, a whopping 7.5 million people watched the show, even though it was up against the NCAA men's college basketball tournament. The series received high ratings from viewers 18 to 49 and gave ABC its highest ratings on a Friday night in more than three years. Jamie's show went on to earn the top ratings for women 18 to 34 four weeks in a row, and was number one two weeks in a row of all Friday shows.

Jamie said he wanted to get the word out about unhealthy school food. Mission accomplished. So it was a success for him, as well. And, I think it's worth noting that the vast majority of the audience for his show had probably never read The Omnivore's Dilemma or Fast Food Nation, or watched Food, Inc. (Though they may be now.)

It all started in one elementary school, where Jamie tried to convince the school cooks, the principal, the parents, the kids, and the state's USDA representative to make a change. Instead of preservative-laden items like pizza and chicken nuggets, Jamie proposed roast chicken, or pasta with a vegetable tomato sauce. Certainly, his food was better for the kids, but it was also more difficult to prepare, more expensive, and more likely to be refused by children who didn't know the difference between potatoes and tomatoes, or that these are the main ingredients in French fries and ketchup.

Jamie was up against a tough competitor. Processed food is cheap, plentiful, and full of fat, sugar and salt. These make it taste good when you're eating it, and make you crave it when you're not. Jamie discovered that this primal craving can even trump rational thought. He invited a group of children joined jim at his local teaching kitchen. He showed them how chicken nuggets were made, removing away all the good parts and grinding the rest, bones and all, in a food processor. As expected, they were disgusted -- until he showed them the finished product, and then they were all too eager to eat them.

Over the course of the show, Jamie tried all sorts of things to teach people about real food. For the elementary kids, he dressed as a pea pod. He showed their parents just how much fat the kids were consuming at school. He staged a fund raiser then surprised the audience when he told them he hadn't cooked their meal—a group of high school students had. He organized a flash mob at Marshall University. He taught a thousand Huntington residents to cook in a wok. He got the mayor and the governor involved. And he raised money from local business leaders so that progress could continue after he left.

On a return visit to Huntington, Jamie found out that the USDA representative proposed processed-food Fridays in schools to unload the excess food in storage, and then placed a huge order of the same processed stuff for next year, citing budget constraints. Meanwhile in the elementary school, brown-bag lunches increased in response to the healthier choices offered at school.

Jamie's response was to help a church build a food center, and announced his plan at a cooking boot camp followed by a charity concert for the community. Huntington has seen positive rewards as a result of Jamie's work, with an increase in interest, affection and tourism. So, for this West Virginia town of 49,000 people, Food Revolution was also a success.

I applaud Jamie Oliver for his dedication to getting people to eat better, though I wish he would have spent a little time explaining why fast, processed food is so entrenched in our society. It's convenient, it's inexpensive, and its full of the three things our primative physiologies craves so much: sugar, fat and calories. For lower-income and/or busy families, these benefits aren't to be dismissed lightly.

Making a change to fresh, whole foods is more expensive and time-consuming. But with practice and savvy shopping, the disparity becomes less. With education, the benefits to the individual and the earth so outweigh the alternatives it becomes more clearly the best choice. But time, money and education aren't universal resources, so believing that food change is a simple decision rather than an ongoing process is an oversimplification.

The series' high ratings indicate that changing the way we eat is something that millions of people are interested in. Jamie is starting his revolution at ground level, in schools, with kids. Buliding on this foundation (check out Jamie's newest video endeavor, Food Revolution News, above, and his new Facebook community), his work will continue to help people make the leap from processed food to whole foods. Those of us fortunate enough to be further along in our food education can support Jamie (click here to sign his petition), even if the Food Revolution doesn't meet ideal standards of whole/organic/sustainable. Revolutions are messy and imperfect, but they make change happen. I look forward to seeing that Jamie's greatest success will be in the number of people he can convince to eat better.

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. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Hard-Cooked Eggs, Not Eggs-actly Perfect But Still Delicious.