Last year, chef Jamie Oliver braved “the eye of the storm,” taking his ABC series “Food Revolution” to Huntington, W. Va. — dubbed the unhealthiest city in America — to foster healthier eating habits and combat obesity and its consequences like diabetes and heart disease. Happily reporting that “Everything I set up is still running, the kitchen is booked three months in advance” in Huntington, Oliver has turned his attentions westward for the show’s second season, which premiers April 12.
“I felt that California and L.A. was perfectly suited to inspire. I felt passionately that L.A. was the right place to go. You’ve got some healthy, fit people and some of the most wonderful food in the world. But you’ve also got some incredible poverty and people have to spend two or three hours on a round trip getting fresh food,” he explains. But he wasn’t prepared for the opposition he faced from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
“I never think anything involving change of heart or mind is going to be easy. Clearly, as far as organizations or businesses or civic bodies like education authorities are concerned, it’s always going to be really painful,” he acknowledges. Nevertheless, he “never expected to be banned from every single school in the district. But the public — parents, teachers, principals or the students themselves — made it pretty clear they would have liked me to get involved. When it’s a public civic organization that affects so many people and is controlled by so few, it just doesn’t seem right to me,” says Oliver, also a producer of the Emmy-winning series.
Dismayed by the “lack of transparency [about] where the food came from” but not one to take no for an answer, Oliver persists in attending bi-weekly LAUSD public board meetings in the hope that a new superintendant might “play ball, but at the moment it’s pretty much a stalemate.” In the meantime, as seen in episode one, he focuses his appeal on parents and teachers, opens a kitchen in Westwood, and tries to make over the menu at a fast-food drive-thru.
Oliver’s goal with “Food Revolution,” which grew out of a series of documentaries he did in Britain, “is to provoke change, trying to get Americans to expect more and getting them a bit more streetwise about food. I’m praying that people will get pissed off with some of the stuff they see. What we’re trying to do is facilitate activism,” and he hopes that his companion website will help on that score.
“You’re going to see in the show that 17-year-olds, a year away from voting, have an incredibly low general knowledge of really basic stuff — where food comes from, what it does to their bodies,” reflects Oliver. While he’d like to see the best-quality food on school menus, and points out that “it’s quite easy to upgrade to free-range eggs and organic milk without upsetting the budget, the sad reality that the war is really processed, low-quality food vs. fresh chicken, and that chicken isn’t likely to be organic or free-range,” he says, content for now to cover that aspect in educational materials he provides to teachers. “It’s about choosing your battles,” he says. “We’re working from the bottom up here.”