I got caught up in an interesting reality TV show this spring that followed celebrity chef Jamie Oliver as he worked to change the school food system in Huntington, W.Va. This town was singled out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the “fattest city in America” in 2008.

I’ve been an Oliver fan since he started his Naked Chef show in 1999. His enthusiasm for simple, tasty food is infectious, and his cookbooks focus on fresh ingredients and having fun in the kitchen. He has worked extensively in England to make changes to the school food system there.

Oliver also won the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize at that organization’s conference, hosted in Long Beach, Calif., in February (you can see his speech here). He spoke passionately about our nation’s unhealthy reliance on processed food and fast food, particularly emphasizing the statistic that this current generation of children in the U.S. will be the first in decades to have a shorter projected lifespan than that of their parents.

His show, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, aired on ABC and showed Oliver arriving in Huntington, meeting school cafeteria staff and local families, and starting up various programs to change the city’s approach to food and healthy eating.

Particularly heart wrenching were his meetings with obese children and teens in Huntington, some of whom had been diagnosed with diabetes and more serious health problems that doctors had told them would shorten their lifespan significantly.

The main drama the show documents is something of a culture clash between Oliver, seen by the locals as a pushy TV personality invading their town for the sake of publicity and self-promotion, and the people of Huntington, who, as one popular radio DJ put it, "didn’t want to sit around eating a bunch of lettuce."

I was mostly interested in Oliver’s activities that took place in the schools. He worked with school administrators and cafeteria staff to switch menus from processed frozen foods to fresh, healthy options in both the elementary and high schools. Not only was he met with resistance from school staff, but he faced the bureaucracy of the USDA-imposed nutrition guidelines at every turn. For example, although he would cook up freshly made spaghetti with a sauce containing seven vegetables with a salad, the menu plan would require a main dish and two vegetable side options be provided, meaning he had to fire up the microwave and heat frozen French fries as the second vegetable.

In this clip, Cabell County Schools Food Service Director Rhonda McCoy, the superintendent and principal all watch as elementary students try one of Oliver’s healthier meals, after he’s insisted that children learn to use a knife and fork.

I wondered how this kind of program would go over in the school transportation world. What if some character from England showed up at your school with a bus yard makeover that required you change your policies and procedures based on his evidence that it was better for the kids or more efficient in some way?

Oliver ended up winning many converts in Huntington, including the school staff, which was a joy to see. It was obvious that the cafeteria staff cared immensely about the children they served and their main objective was to use a system that worked. When Oliver stepped in and wanted to rock their boat, they were understandably hesitant. But when they saw the overwhelming evidence of the damaging effects of unhealthy food, and when Oliver helped them make a workable system for preparing fresh food, they made the change, no questions asked, and even became advocates in his mission to convert other schools in town.

I’m interested to hear if any of you saw this show and what you thought. And if you were approached with a proposal to make drastic changes to your school transportation program for the sake of efficiency or the greater good, would you be open to it? Leave a comment below.



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Claire Atkinson

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