Can Jamie Oliver Revolutionize Our Eating?

Celeb chef's new show addresses obesity, access and more

Did you catch the debut of Jamie Oliver's highly-anticipated Food Revolution on ABC Friday night? The rumple-haired Naked Chef travels from his British homeland, where he has been credited with helping revolutionize the school lunch system, to Huntington, West Virginia, named the nation's unhealthiest city by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I watched it, and what I saw was embarrassing and sad.

Half of Huntington’s population is obese, including the children. When Oliver plays Vegetable Show-and-Tell with a class of six-year-olds, they think tomatoes are potatoes and an eggplant is a pear. No one recognizes cauliflower. When he attempts to work with elementary school kitchen staff, he is stunned – and appalled - to learn they have never given the kids forks to eat with…because the foods they get can be eaten with fingers (burgers, pizza, chicken nuggets.)

Speaking of chicken nuggets, Oliver attempts to perform an experiment with some of the elementary school students involving a raw chicken. After slicing away the breast, thighs and wings, they’re left with a sad carcass. “Who wants to eat this?” Oliver asks, hoisting the remains up. “Ewww! Gross!” they reply. Then, Oliver places the headless, meatless skeleton, plus some chicken skin, in a blender and purees it into a heap of connective tissue, fat and cartilage. “Now, who wants to eat this?” Again, the children voice their disgust.

But then the experiment goes horribly wrong. The chef adds some flavoring, stabilizer and bread crumbs, shapes the chicken leftovers into a giant patty and starts cutting out small, easily-recognizable nugget shapes. As he fries them in an oiled pan, he once again asks which of the children would dare eat this. The typical answer has always been, “No way!” Except in America, apparently, where every single kids raises his hand. Once the garbage took the shape of something familiar (and salty and greasy and yummy,) their young, immediate gratification-seeking minds no longer cared whether the ingredients were wholesome or not.

“We've brainwashed kids,” Oliver says, staring into the camera. His look of utter defeat betrays a less polite take: We are so screwed.

One would hope the town of Huntington, or any city up to its beer bellies in Type 2 Diabetes and high cholesterol, would welcome the help of a celebrity chef, but that is not the case here. The children, of course, are resistant to change -- who wants to eat broccoli when you can have burritos? The parents are largely uneducated and seem to take offense at having a rich Brit infiltrate their town and tell them how to take care of their kids. And when a few of his statements ruffle some feathers (He calls the residents "anemic with information." A radio announcer replies, "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day. I don't think you should come in here and tell us what to do. Who made you the king?"), he realizes how much American obstinacy he’s up against.

It’s not just a stubborn determination to continue the Dominos and Taco Bell status quo; money is an issue. It costs more to eat well. Never mind the fact that spending money up front will undoubtedly save much more in reduced health care costs down the line.

Watching Food Revolution got me thinking about childhood obesity and the role parents play in keeping their children healthy. In Huntington, Oliver spends time with the Edwards family -– the homemaker mom, truck driver dad and three children are all obese. Oliver takes the family to the hospital for a checkup, something the kids don’t typically have access to. (The father attributes it to being busy and the belief that, "If it’s not broke, don't fix it.")

Only his kids ARE broken. They’re all exhibiting signs of Type 2 Diabetes, such as darkening of the skin on the neck. The daughter is only four, but looks eight, as her body has matured early due to increased estrogen levels. The doctor tells the parents their 12-year-old son, Justin, is at risk for high blood pressure, arthritis, heart attacks, blindness, amputation and having his life shortened by 40 years. Mom and Dad are mortified; the mother cries, explaining that she feels responsible.

Which she is. She and her husband put fried food on the table, night after night. They send him to a school where pizza is served for breakfast and French fries count as a vegetable serving. After Oliver supplied her with enough fresh ingredients and recipes to cook wholesome, from-scratch foods for a week, she still gave them McDonald’s. It IS the parents' fault.

BUT I do not believe they did so maliciously, and that counts for something. Just like involuntary manslaughter is different from murder, I don’t believe the Edwards’ parents ever intended to hurt their children; they simply lack the education to know better or the financial means to do anything about it.

But does that excuse them? Last year, South Carolina mother Jerri Gray was arrested and charged with criminal neglect, after her 14-year-old son hit the 555-pound mark.  A Scottish couple recently lost custody of two of their six children for similar reasons.  Criminal action against parents of overweight kids is a slippery slope, to be sure. I’m not necessarily in favor of it, but watching this portion of Food Revolution left me feeling helpless. If I saw a parent in a mall slapping her child, I would deem it abuse. But if I saw her buying a Happy Meal for her obese daughter, would that be any different? Children rely on their parents to pave the way to a healthy future. Taking the parents away isn’t the answer…but what is?

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