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From Across the Pond: Jamie's School Lunch Project

I've been an ardent fan of Jamie Oliver since his early days as a twenty-something chef and television personality. Back then he was going by the less, er, dignified sobriquet of The Naked Chef (the food was pared down and naked, not him). Since then, he's published five cookbooks (with the sixth, "Jamie's Italian," to be published Stateside this fall) and appeared in two television programs (The Naked Chef and Oliver's Twist), started a charity which educates and employees at-risk youth at his restaurant Fifteen (he filmed the process in an award-winning documentary called Jamie's Kitchen), launched a line of cookware, gotten married, and had two kids. Needless to say, he's a busy guy and extremely driven. This is a man who can do just about anything he sets out to do.

Still, I had some reservations when I heard that Jamie was going to attempt the impossible: to spend a year and a half investigating and improving the poor quality of children's school lunches in the UK and, like in his last documentary series Jamie's Kitchen, would film the results--good or ill--in another series, this time entitled Jamie's School Lunch Project, which is currently airing here in the States on TLC.

But let me be clear about one thing. We're not talking about the culinary transformation of one school's lunches. Jamie sets out to take control of 20,000 school lunches a day, a huge feat by anyone's standards. Along the way, he sets out to prove that he can provide inexpensive and healthy lunches that the kids will eat, while educating both children and parents about the benefits of eating good quality fruit, vegetables, and meat rather than junk food. Can he pull it off, when the kids are choosing to continue to eat pizza and chips (fries) rather than the risottos and curries he's cooking? And when some actually launch a revolt? (He's Jamie Oliver, so my only hope is that his drive and determination will win out over obstinacy and sheer stupidity.)

One of the things I love most about Jamie is that he is so hands-on in any of the projects he launches. This is a man who pours his heart and soul into his food, whether it be a gorgeous pasta or a simple salad. He cares and his enthusiasm is downright infectious. Jamie cares deeply about people and what they're eating and he sets out to discover what the kids are having for lunch. The local government provides the equivalent of 67 cents for each of these kids' meals, which means that the ingredients end up being cheap, low quality, and highly processed. Restaurant food this is not.

At the start of the series, Jamie leaves his wife and kids behind to work in the kitchen of a London borough high school, where he quickly attempts to make over the school lunches... with disastrous results. Jamie begins by spending his days working with the lunch ladies. He follows their instructions (though he definitely bristles at some), prepares the food to their orders (though he notices that they don't actually cook at all anymore; rather they open boxes of processed food and reheat), and clashes with the head lunch lady, a woman named Nora Sands, who can only be described as a salt-of-the-earth, lovable Irish hellion. (Jamie is very clear to say that this isn't a campaign against lunch ladies, but rather the food that they are being forced by the government and by food suppliers to prepare.)

You can tell that Nora and Jamie really do love one another but they cannot, CANNOT, work together in the kitchen. Nora is loud and aggressive but highly organized; Jamie is focused and quiet, prone to improvising dishes with what he has on hand, a method that cannot work in a school kitchen, when you've got to feed hundreds of students at the same time. Jamie starts to provide alternative options to the hamburgers, turkey twizzlers (don't ask), pizza, and chips that the kids are lining up for. Dishes that are healthy and delicious, dishes that have vegetables... dishes that the kids are refusing to eat.

Jamie's idea: do a job switch. He wants to send Nora away for one day and let him seize control of the kitchen. In return, Jamie will send Nora to his restaurant, Fifteen, for the day where she'll pick up some knife skills and work in the kitchen. Nora is immediately against the idea. She begs the school principal to let her stay in her office and take care of paperwork. She's not going to Fifteen. But the principal sides with Jamie and off Nora goes.

And guess what? Nora learns A LOT being there, how to control and modulate her behavior, how to plate dishes with elegance, how to cut and chop and julienne, and picks up restaurant cooking experience... and in the end, this job switch re-ignites the passion for food within her. Not only does Nora become Jamie's chief advocate in his cooking revolution, but she reconnects with the joy of cooking that was taken away from her in her job. So much so that Nora herself now has a website and, more importantly, her own cookbook coming out in the UK called "Nora's Dinners," which is filled with simple and classic recipes, with a modern twist, for families. And since meeting up with Jamie, she hasn't served a single chip.

Acting on the advice of Nora, Jamie realizes that if he's going to win these kids over, he has to start at an early age and sets out to immerse himself at an elementary school in the north of England. There, he spends time with kids like Chocolate Boy, who (you guessed it) loves to eat chocolate and sweets, and the most finicky eater I have ever come across--a lad named Liam, who Jamie can't even get to eat organic roast chicken or asparagus. Or for that matter, a strawberry. These are working-class kids, kids who have never eaten a salad or know what a leek is. Or what an onion looks like. It's scary and depressing at the same time.

Working with these young kids, Jamie breaks down their resistance to trying new foods over their familiar junk food, getting them to experiment and cook their own meals, sample foods they've never dreamt of before. He singles out the ones who really won't try anything and removes them from the class for the period, thus removing any obstacle from the kids who are bowing more to peer pressure than any real fear of, say, trying asparagus. And those kids who weren't willing to try? In the end, they feel left out and come around too. (Jamie also discovers the motivating power of stickers as well.)

If Jamie can reach out and get these kids to change their perceptions and attitudes towards food, can he get teenagers to do the same? That's the real question of the series and a task made all the more difficult by the fact that some teenage girls at the high school actually launch a protest against Jamie, chanting that they want him to go home. It's a sad commentary on the mores of youth that they would be so myopic and self-absorbed that they fail to see what Jamie is sacrificing of himself in order to fight for their very futures. As Jamie tells us, this is a generation whose lifespans will actually be less than their parents, a scary and sobering thought about how backwards we have become.

Ultimately, food should be more than fuel. It should be beautiful and joyous but it should also be sustaining and nurturing in a healthy, positive way. And last year, because of this crusading series, Jamie was able to get the British government to see just that, as they agreed to spend an additional 280 million pounds (roughly equal to $530 million) a year to improve the national school lunch program.

In the meantime, Jamie has crossed the Atlantic to start a similar program here in the States, where the school lunch situation is just as dismal as it is in the UK (compared to the UK, an average of $1.50 is spent on each child's school lunch). Hopefully, he can achieve what Chez Panisse founder and organic movement visionary Alice Waters started in her Edible Schoolyard program in Berkeley, California, and implement it on a national level. Can we be willing to sacrifice our children's future for the sake of saving a few extra dollars? Or stand by idly while an entire generation slides into obesity, diabetes, and behavior problems because they are not eating properly at school? Something has to be done now to change government standards and to educate young people about what they're choosing to eat.

In the end, that's what I call food for thought.

"Jamie's School Lunch Project" is currently airing Monday evenings at 7 pm on cable channel TLC. For more information about Jamie Oliver's Feed Me Better Campaign in the UK, please visit Feed Me Better.

What's On Tonight

8 pm: The King of Queens/How I Met Your Mother (CBS); Deal or No Deal (NBC; 8-10 pm); 7th Heaven (WB); Oprah Winfrey's Legends Ball (ABC; 8-10 pm); Prison Break (FOX); One on One/All of Us (UPN)

9 pm: Two and a Half Men/The New Adventures of Old Christine (CBS); Everwood (WB); Grey's Anatomy (ABC; 9-11 pm); 24 (FOX); Half & Half/Half & Half (UPN)

10 pm: CSI: Miami (CBS); The Apprentice (NBC)

What I'll Be Watching

7-9 pm: Jamie's School Lunch Project.

See above. In tonight's installment of the documentary series ("Lunch Lady Boot Camp"), Jamie Oliver returns to the high school, where things are not going well at all, despite Nora's support. As Jamie prepares to take over the lunches at over 70 London schools, he organizes a Lunch Lady Boot Camp, where the school district's head cooks will be retrained and instructed in cooking the Jamie Oliver way. Lucky ladies.

9:30 pm: Old Christine.

As the season draws to a close, we're down to very few original episodes of most series. The third-to-last original episode of Old Christine ("Exile on Lame Street") airs tonight. In this week's episode, Christine puts up a red flag when ex-husband Richard and New Christine want to take Ritchie to a rock concert. Oh, Christine. Stop being so darn square and lighten up. It's not like they're taking him to a Whitesnake concert or anything... Wait, are they?


Anonymous said…
Like the documentary "Supersize Me," this show is both entertaining and frightening and should be required watching for all parents and teachers.

In a world of celebrity chefs, it's nice to see that Jamie Oliver has used his celebrity status to give back to the world and to tackle one of our greatest problems - the nutrition of our children. It's absolutely terrifying to see some of the health problems these kids are suffering because of poor diet. I hope that Jamie's crusade will teach and inspire people all over to take better care of what they feed their kids.
Anonymous said…
I have become obsessed with this show! I am a mom who has had no problem stopping in at McDonalds for Chicken Nuggets. After watching this show, my effort at cooking and preparing meals for my children has changed dramatically. I think every parent should watch this series, its awesome.
Anonymous said…
I was not only completely entertained but as a parent have reduced considerably the amount of processed foods I am giving to our children. Especially fast food and chicken nuggets (I have never seen a turkey twizzler before?). I really appreciated seeing the process of the children warming up to the idea of trying new things. Thanks for opening our eyes as parents and hopefully the United States will adopt your methods in cafeterias around the states....maybe Jamie could do a sequel and lead that one up next??
Rita said…
Jaimie is an inspiration to all aspiring chefs!
Anonymous said…
I am a tuckshop convenor in Australia, we do not provide meals as such, but walk away meals. This proves a little hard as the kids do not sit in a cafateria style . I have thoughly enjoyed watching the school dinners segments so i have started changing the way i cook and buy products into the school so its fresh , thats the high point fresh ... thanks jaimie.

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