Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Jamie Oliver/State of American Food Rant

This link appeared in my comments today after I mentioned that I'm a bit addicted to Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. It's a thought provoking, excellent article and links to several other good ones.

I should start by saying that I don't really watch reality TV. I admit that I was suckered into The Sing-Off (although we muted it every time Pussycat Doll simpleton opened her mouth). Besides that, I avoid it like the plague because they are all created drama, heavily scripted "reality" which is edited to create a certain picture. I have been working on the assumption that everybody on the planet knows this. Apparently the author of the article (and perhaps many others) are taking this entertainment really seriously. Does anyone actually believe that Jamie Oliver was truly planning to change a city's or even a school's or even a family's eating habits in the course of four months? He doesn't seem that stupid.

Change is only something that happens due to inner resolve. Speaking from personal experience, it takes a whole lot of exposure to new ideas from many different angles before I really commit to changes. Then there's a spark, a single moment - some factoid from a news article, an arbitrary weight on the scales, meeting a certain person - where everything coalesces. The time is now and all the halfway waffling is just done. It happened when I decided to run marathons. It happened when I committed to buying only local fruit and vegetables. It happened when we started buying only local, ethically raised meat. There are many other things but it all boils down to the difference between knowing one should do something and just doing it.

I will give Jamie Oliver's critics full agreement that he's a bit of a prima donna, a posturing drama queen, going teary the moment something doesn't go his way. That's part of what makes him good entertainment - everybody likes feeling a bit superior and there's no guilt involved when you're laughing at a man whose net worth is more than I would make in several lifetimes. America and a lot of the rest of the world is now constantly on the hunt for amusement. He provides that as a remarkable showman. Hundreds of pound of fat? A tarp full of chocolate milk? P.T. Barnum would be so proud.

Similarly, the tear-jerking absolutely most horrible stories that he can find of people struggling with their health or eating truly repulsive diets are more showmanship. These people are willing to participate, everything is edited to the most poignant edge of pathos and we all get a nice empathy moment. Does the audience know that the people he has found are not "everyman? I certainly hope we do.

So, here I am, proclaiming my love for a show that I freely admit is a circus run by a charlatan which claims to be a serious piece of "revolution". Why? Because we love a circus and the circus is starting a new level of consciousness. We can be smug as Jamie's magazine is caught out showing a "healthy" lunch recipe containing over 1100 calories. But it makes us think. Maybe that memory, "I know what kids should eat", will stop that overworked parent the next time the reach for the Lunchables because it's just so easy. This show is opening up a new awareness about food issues to a new audience. People who look up information on the show because it intrigued them will, through the magic of the internet's endless links, get led into a deeper understanding of current food issues than a TV show could possibly provide. And then they may stop the next time they're driving by the local farmer's market.

I know I live in Oregon, which may sometimes be quite far left of normal, but I get really worried when this appears in an article linked from the previous one.
"One promo shows a bewildered Oliver as he tries (and fails) to get a room of healthy-looking elementary students to correctly identify tomatoes, a beet, an eggplant, and a cauliflower. (Never mind that the latter three are obvious ringers many healthy adults couldn’t identify in their raw forms...)"
Really, many adults can't recognize eggplant, beets or cauliflower? And this is okay? How far removed from our food are we? It seems like somebody who had ever even walked through a normal grocery store's produce section should have picked up the names. It's not like he was holding up bok choy or kohlrabi.

I agree with the article that focusing on the schools is not the way to actually solve our food problems but, again, as far as a great place for sound bytes and captive audiences it will make the best entertainment. And, again, it's a great place to wake parents up. As a parent, I would be running through the checklist - do my kids know how to use utensils? Have my kids ever seen a green vegetable? Are my kids so overindulged and spoiled that they only eat pizza and french fries?

By the way, when did we start constantly worrying that kids needed to "like" what they're served, even when they're 4 or 5. Best moment of the most recent show - Jamie: "Why are you getting white milk?" Kids: "Because our teacher wants us to." Kids thrive when the adults around them are right authority figures - people who love them and care enough to shepherd them through the world, not just letting them have what they "want".

Here's the alternate picture - a picture given to me by the engaged, thoughtful parents of the students in my class. The kids I know discuss what their favorite salad dressings are and love making them. They occasionally get a bit of fun by rolling veggie sushi. They mourn when the frozen blueberries from last summer run out. And they sure as hell know what an eggplant is and that eggs come from chickens and milk comes from cows. They have had sensible parents teaching their bodies what to eat by not giving options from the time they were small and now many of them, even if they like the taste (which not all do), will only eat small amounts of junk food if given the opportunity. They don't like the way it makes them feel. And many of them are already more accomplished cooks at the age of thirteen than I was when I went to college. (Note - I grew up on home-cooked meals made from conventional groceries in a suburban area - no visible local food web. I know that my upbringing did save me from truly being part of the first junk food generation, despite my age.) These are the kids that we could easily be raising all across America. What does it take? PARENTS!

I appreciate the struggles facing many families when it comes to getting food on the table. I know that I, and most of the people I know, are extremely fortunate to have so many fresh food options available and be able to afford them. I can't even imagine the "urban deserts" that Michelle Obama is calling awareness to, places where people need to buy all of their food from convenience stores because the grocery stores are so far away. In that way, I really agree with the article when they say that the idea of choice is a construct and not a viable reality for many people.

That said, the lack of true choice has less to do with any of those outward circumstances than it has to do with a lack of education. Somehow, children need to be inspired to retain their natural inquisitiveness into adulthood and be given the skills to allow them to be self-directed learners. And we need to provide a rejuvenation of those facilities in the many adults who have currently been numbed into corporate obedience. Wake up, Hot Pockets are not food and being able to eat a "meal" while skateboarding was not really a need waiting to be filled! This is what I hope junk TV like Jamie Oliver combined with education efforts of the "Let's Move!" federal campaign will do - inspire people to ask questions and educate themselves. So what if I live in an "urban desert"; if I want to change, if that spark of urgency to "do it now" is lit, I can easily find plans for putting a planter of lettuce on the window sill - $2, endless greens. Or a few pots of tomatoes on the fire escape. I can learn how to cook and season food so this statement (again from the article) is proven to be untrue - "Many people opt for flavor-intense, highly processed, calorie-dense food because it's cheaper, easier and more fulfilling than cooking healthy foods from scratch." Huh? I've been known to make a delicious dinner for two of us (with lunch leftovers for the next day) on less than a dollar a person. Is it organic at that price? No. Is it more time consuming? Yes, but the hour it often takes is far less than most people spend watching TV each day. Is it less flavorful or less fulfilling than processed food? Absolutely, unequivocably no.

Okay, rant's done. At the end of the day, we need to reconnect to the fulfillment of our most basic physical need - food. And a cocky Englishman with a huge budget and a huge ego is helping push that dialogue out to a much greater audience than it previously had - great, whatever it takes. I truly believe that through reconnecting to our body's needs we will reconnect to our other, more ephemeral, needs as well. Maybe being able to recognize an eggplant is the Prozac nation's first step toward actual happiness and spiritual fulfillment. Maybe it's just a step toward every American being fit enough to take a walk on a fragrant spring day. That would be enough.


Unknown said...

You honestly believe that you're liberal? I laughed when I read that because up until that point I was thinking you were a crazy right-winger. I think its the complete lack of empathy, the holier than thou attitude, the belief that your experience must be tru for all other people in the world.

Liz said...

Dear Furr,

Ah, the anonymity of the internet - personal attacks without any actual comment on the content. Lots of name calling though...

I debated leaving your comment up but I did because it's always good to get the perspective of how others are perceiving me, even if they don't actually rebut my point of view with their own. All you told me is that you think I'm a horrible person - point taken.

That said, it's my blog and my thoughts and I specifically stated that it was my rant - I don't believe that that suggests I "carry the belief that your experience must be tru for all other people in the world." (BTW - my experience in basic literacy taught me "true" has an "e" on the end - oops, more of that "holier than thou attitude" rearing it's ugly head).

I do consider myself quite liberal and I don't know what suggested that I was a "crazy right-winger". I do, however, like to think of my brand of liberalism as also incorporating an ability to be analytical about things and not just see them as "guy promoting local food = hero worship". I like him, I believe in the cause he's promoting and I was giving my perspective on those issues.

In the unlikely event that you return, please consider linking me to or sending me your thoughts on the issues rather than just attacking mine.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your post; thanks for sharing your point of view!