Ten years after sustainable-food doyenne Alice Waters launched her innovative Edible Schoolyard program in Berkeley, U.S. school lunches remain abysmal. In cafeteria kitchens throughout the land, de-skilled workers busy themselves opening cans and zapping pre-made meals in giant microwaves. Out on the floor, kids swill soda and dig their little hands into bags of fried stuff that may have, somewhere far way, once resembled food.
Waters’ effort remains laudable, but it’s limited to one school. No public figure, no celebrity chef riding the waves of a Food Network show and the opening of an eponymous restaurant in Vegas, has bothered to make decent school lunches a national crusade.
Enter Jamie Oliver, the “Naked Chef” of U.K. TV and cookbook fame.Earlier this year, Oliver harangued the British government into spending an additional 280 million pounds (about $536 million) annually to improve its own disastrous school-lunch program. He did so by appearing on a kind of muckraking, nationally televised reality show, taking viewers into the cold industrial heart of a typical school-cafeteria kitchen.
Now he’s set up shop in New York City, preparing to launch a similar reality-TV show aimed at shaking things up in the U.S.
The chef looks cuddly in pictures, but speaks with an admirable bluntness. He recently told New York Magazine that:
America’s kids have some of the worst health issues because of eating junk and not exercising…I thought maybe we could help here. Help them eat real food instead of packaged lies. You know, turkey which is real turkey and not donkey bollocks.
Strong stuff; and hard to contradict, with studies like this one appearing regularly.
Before his school-lunch efforts, I never thought much of Oliver. From the one cookbook of his I’d seen, he seemed to be doing a sort of Emeril-as-London-lad act, clowning around in public to kick up his net worth a notch or ten.
But I heard him interviewed on BBC several months ago, and he was articulate, thoughtful, and angry that the political system had allowed multinational food giants to take over school lunches. And his agenda went beyond serving kids fresher and healthier food. He also wanted to link schools with local farms, as well as promote school gardens. Essentially, in other words, the Alice Waters/Edible Schoolyard approach.
Let’s hope that message gets out on Oliver’s TV show. And also that U.S. chefs of similar cultural stature — for example, Mario Batali — join the battle.