Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: S2E1 Review

April 13, 2011

Last night ABC aired the first episode of the second season of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” You can watch the episode for free here.

Last season was set in Huntington, West Virginia. This season, Oliver travels to Los Angeles to take on the school lunch program in the LA Unified School District. With half a million students, it’s as if Oliver’s gone straight from Little League to Major League. The added challenges of campaigning in Los Angeles are evident right from the start.

His initial task is to convince four of the seven school board members to allow his TV show to film on campus. But what we see is a board that goes out of its way to isolate itself from public opinion, and a superintendent who clearly wants no part of the show and who has the political skills to freeze Oliver out of any access to the district.

So Oliver has to take his case to the public. He does a short appearance on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show, where he covers the basics of his campaign. Since Oliver can’t bring his camera to LA schools, he has its students bring their lunches to the show. As Oliver notes, it’s like airplane food that’s been “microwaved in a plastic sock.” We see canned fruit, donuts, pizza, and—of course—chocolate milk.

Later in the show, we’re given insight into why sugar-sweetened milks are welcome in LA’s schools while Oliver himself is banned. Oliver travels to the California School Nutrition Association annual conference, and attends a dairy-industry sponsored presentation that tries to frame the serving of sugar-sweetened milk as a responsible child nutrition measure. Oliver’s interaction with an industry stooge is priceless.

To conclude the show, Oliver carries out what may be the most powerful food politics visual demonstration I’ve ever seen. He assembles some parents and arranges to dump into a school bus all the sugar that would go into a week’s worth of milk for the school district. We see tons and tons of sugar pouring inside the bus, filling up the cabin, flooding through gaps in the windows, and finally accumulating on the parking lot.

It’s a powerful image, and bound to inspire countless parents and teachers to see school lunch policies in a new way.

But with no access to the school board’s decision-makers, Oliver has to fill time elsewhere. So we get a ten minute segment with him trying to work with an independent fast food restaurant owner, in an attempt to strip away the most unhealthful aspects of the menu. This segment offers some great insight into why low-grade meats and sweeteners are such an entrenched part of the fast food industry.

But this segment’s a poor substitute for what Oliver really wants: the chance to work directly with school lunch program officials. Oliver’s caught up in the sort of big-city bureaucracy that he never had to deal with back in Huntington, and it’s clear by the show’s end that he’s exasperated and doesn’t know the next step forward. As this episode ends, he laments:

Every opportunity of telling a story is literally getting locked down left, right, and center. We’re getting nowhere, absolutely nowhere. You know Huntington was tough at times but it felt human. This doesn’t. This is cold shoulder stuff. The point of this program is to stir the pot and be useful, but I’m not sure how great we’ve done so far. We’re doing a great show about how people don’t give a fuck.

Doubtless Oliver will find some way to gain access and to start initiating reform. And while this episode was interesting and worthwhile, it’s clear that Oliver’s off to a rocky start this time around. I bet he never thought he’d miss jousting with Rhonda and DJ Rod from Huntington, but last year’s challenges pale next to what he’s now facing.

Whether this season ends with success or failure, no television show provides a better window into what it takes to be an effective food activist. Link.

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