Story by Tracy Sutton
It's almost the setup for a B-movie Western: A handsome stranger rides into town. Bold, young – a reformer. He's going to clean up this podunk frontier. The locals resent him. They hurl lunch trays.
Introducing British chef, Jamie Oliver. On March 26, Oliver premiered his reality TV show “Food Revolution” in which he visits Huntington, W.Va. – deemed the unhealthiest town in America – and attempts to revolutionize the school lunches.
It's a bigger job than you might think. Processed, starchy meals, junk food vending machines, and “breakfast pizza” are nothing compared with the formidable resistance of the West Virginia lunch ladies, who regard Oliver with a contempt that most Huntington grade-schoolers appear to reserve for fresh vegetables.
Under the guise of “know thy enemy,” Oliver enters the bizarre world of USDA-regulated school lunches. A land where two starches a day are mandated, french fries are considered a vegetable, and where no one actually appears to cook food. Oliver plays along, gamely preparing industrial portions of chicken nuggets with the “lovely ladies” although he is wholly revolted by it. I have to say, there is something perverse about watching a celebrated chef cook instant mashed potatoes. Or as lunch lady Alice Gue reverently calls them, “Potato Pearls” – a disgusting, simulated potato substance that sets like concrete.
At several points during the show – the appalling meals, the morbidly obese children, the rigid adherence to nonsensical government lunch policies – you want to weep. Oliver addresses the camera and says he has seen healthier government lunches for poor kids in Africa compared with what U.S. kids are served. “You parents should be
Farmers? You too. At one point, Oliver shows grade-schoolers a basket of vegetables – and they can't identify any of them. Not even the potato. Yes, it's sensational, reality television, but it's underscoring an abhorrent truth in America – not only don't people know where their food comes from, they don't even know what it is.
Take heart, however, because a quiet revolution is under way to reform school food. Public health organizations, the first lady, nonprofits like Slow Food and concerned legislators are bringing needed attention to the issue. And that's excellent news for farmers. Support for farm-to-school programs – getting those mysterious vegetables out of your fields and on to the lunch plates of local kids – was just upped to $40 million over five years.
That is a refreshing change that should be heartily supported by the farm community. Right now there are so many insane obstacles preventing farmers from selling to their local public institutions. You know whoever's selling “Potato Pearls” is making a fortune. Wouldn't you like to see a world where you're selling real potatoes to your local school?
But funding is not guaranteed yet, so make your voice heard with Congress. The Child Nutrition Bill is up for a vote with the Senate in mid-to-late April. Many organizations are petitioning. For more information see the Time for Lunch campaign at www.slowfoodusa.org or sign Jamie Oliver's petition to save cooking skills and improve school food at www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/jamies-food-revolution/petition
School lunch revolution – revolt at the revolting.
About the author: Tracy Sutton is the Regional Editor of the Lancaster Farming newspaper – www.lancasterfarming.com