School Lunch Project

May 9th, 2006 § 0 comments

This evening, I watched the first two episodes of Jamie Oliver’s School Lunch Project on TLC, which is the American-redubbed version of “Jamie’s School Dinners”. The documentary follows Jamie Oliver’s quest to improve the meals available in British schools. Having spent six years in British state schools, I can personally attest to the generally horrendous quality of food available. At the time, I wondered how it might get any worse. When I ate my first school lunch in the United States, I found out. American school lunches made their British counterparts look like a three-course meal at the Ritz.
In, School Lunch Project Jamie identifies two core problems:

  1. Healthy food is not a readily available option in schools. When it is an option, students will opt not to take it, preferring the unhealthy food they have become accustomed to.
  2. Healthy food is not an option in the home for many students. Having no exposure to good food, kids dismiss any alternatives to junk food out of hand.

In short, as Oliver himself puts it, there is no “food culture” amongst most kids, driven partially by economic reasons and partially by poor understanding by parents and their kids. He takes a two-pronged approach to the problem. First by taking the effort to stretch a meager 37p-per-student budget as far as it will go, buying fresh, quality ingredients, and second, by attempting to educate the students he comes into contact with about food choice. The latter seems to be by far the biggest challenge, especially for the older students who have become deeply entrenched in their poor eating habits. By the third episode, apparently, pupils at the London school Oliver uses as a testbed end up “rebelling” against their new lunchtime diet.

When I was in the UK in Spring 2005, the show was just ending its run in the UK, and public interest in the subject at the time was at fever pitch. I didn’t get a chance to see the show at the time, so I didn’t get much of an appreciation for the remarkable result of a four-part series. Around that time, as a direct result of School Lunch Project, the British government had just increased the budget for school meals significantly, and–equally important–recognized the lack of nutritional content in school meals as a major problem. I see School Lunch Project as a victory on several levels.

First and foremost, that one (admittedly famous and noteworthy) campaigner can make a real difference in the public discourse, and that power is increased withthe addition of more campaigners. The “Feed Me Better” campaign that sprang out of the television show garnered over a quarter of a million signatures on a petition delivered to Downing Street.

Secondly, School Lunch Project shone a light on, and made everyone stare at the critical health problem overshadowing America and Britian (and probably other parts of Europe, too): we’re fat. America, in particular, has a skyrocketing obesity rate, and very little is being done about it beyond a few Oprah TV specials and the odd PSA campaign. School food is still poor. Students are rarely, if ever, taught how to prepare a healthy meal. And by “taught to prepare”, I don’t mean fill in a few worksheets and memorize the USDA Food Pyramid. I mean, actually be taught to prepare, from scratch, using real ingredients, a healthy meal. I suggest that it is a cheaper option to invest in education now, rather than to pay the cost in public health decades from now. I also suggest that since, as Jamie Oliver demonstrates, the food culture within the home itself can be just as nonexistent as it currently is in school, students should be taught about preparing quality food at school, rather than dismissing the subject and leaving it up to parents.

Thirdly, School Lunch Project is a fine example of the power of independent media. The original series was produced and broadcast by Channel Four, one of Britain’s three commercial terrestrial TV networks. My guess (though I have no evidence to support my hypothesis), is that the distance between Channel Four and the government of the day allowed Jamie Oliver to editorialize freely and rake as much muck as possible without fear of zealous editing by overseers. Please don’t misinterpret my comments as being anti-BBC; my point here is that a healthy distance between the state and a documentary filmmaker was beneficial in this case.

Much of the content of School Lunch Project might be lost on an American audience, though I hope the audience sees parallels, if not precise representations of the scenario in many Ameican schools. Replace “Turkey Twizzlers” with “Tater Tots”, and you have the content of most American school lunches: too much trash.
Jamie’s School Lunch Project Episode 3 airs Monday, May 15 at 7/6 Central.

Further reading, and sources:
Wikipedia, “Jamie Oliver”
Channel Four’s Jamie’s School Dinners Page
Feed Me Better

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