Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution: What’s Next? (or: Are You Angry?)

April 27, 2010

by Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

I've now watched the full season of Jamie
Oliver's Food Revolution
, and I must admit that the show mesmerized
me. Yes, it is reality TV. Yes, much of the drama was manufactured. And
I have to admit: the dramatic music drove me nuts. But fundamentally,
Jamie educated, motivated and possibly angered millions (or at
least 519,000
at the last count) of people about the condition and
importance of school food.


If you watched the show, it wasn't hard to feel compassion for everyone
at the school Jamie featured. People were hungry for change — once they
realized that change was needed and felt empowered to be part of the
solution.

The show also left many people mad at the UDSA for providing schools with
unhealthy food
. As Toby Wollin wrote over at Fire Dog Lake:

What IS this food that is
in her warehouse and the cold storage facility? Things such as chicken
nuggets, hamburgers, french fries, fruit packed in syrup that are priced
basically so cheaply that no school district can possibly resist it.
THAT is what is on the USDA list. That is what THEY are buying and
providing for the schools. This is not food bought directly from
farmers; this is processed junk. Filled with chemicals, stabilizers, and
(shall we say it once more?) corn and soy in every form imaginable and
produced by mega-corporations such as ConAgra and Archer Daniels
Midland.


However, I was left a bit angry in a different way. I was angry at three
things:


  1. School have so little to spend on healthy food;

  2. Unhealthy food is so cheap, and;

  3. School leaders are accountable for their impact on education, but not
    their impact on kids' health.


And for each of these items, we need to make change.

Let me explain what I mean.

First, if you've read this blog before, you know that schools only have
about $2.68 per meal to spend on school food — including labor and
overhead.
This leaves schools losing an average of $0.35 per meal served
(and more than twice as much in large urban school districts). So
school food programs end up with two options: they need to be
underwritten with money from a district's education budget to break
even, or they sell (generally unhealthy) foods outside the school meal
program to cover their budget shortfalls. Let's face it: healthy food is
more expensive to prepare than highly processed junk food is. And as
long as we provide inadequate funding for school food, food service
programs will be pressured to cut costs wherever possible and will have
an incredibly hard time serving the food we'd prefer our kids to eat.
Simply put, we need more money for better school food. We need
the federal government to allocate more money to the school lunch
program now.

Second, unhealthy food is too cheap. The problem with talking school
food with the USDA is that it's just not as simple as it looks on the
surface. We do need better food. However, most people don't realize that
the USDA commodity program for schools has improved tremendously over
the past years. Take a look
at what they offer to schools
, and you may be surprised. There's a
lot of good stuff there that schools can use for healthy food prep. So
it's a bit overly simplistic just to point to USDA and say they need to
change what they offer schools in the commodity program. One of the
biggest problems is that schools frequently send these commodity foods
to middle men to turn them into processed food that is easier to prepare
— especially if the schools don't have adequate kitchen facilities.

At a more basic level is the fact that unhealthy food — in schools, in
stores, everywhere in our country — is too cheap. Our government
subsidizes corn and soy production through USDA programs to such an
extent that these by-products have become ubiquitous in processed
unhealthy foods. We need to shift
ag policy
(and USDA subsidies) to start supporting farmers who are
growing fruits and vegetables, not just the current commodity crops.
This would allow the marketplace to shift back toward whole food
options.

Third, we need to hold our schools accountable for the health of our
students
. As our elected officials debate education policy, they (not
just food and ag activists) need to recognize the important connection
between health and learning. The current focus of education policy is on
accountability for math and writing standards, but education policy is
incomplete when it fails to include health outcomes as well. We need to
have reportable accounting of how schools address nutrition and physical
activity… because if principals and superintendents are not held
accountable for these, they'll never prioritize them at the local school
level.

So in the end, the Food Revolution got me angry, and I loved it. While
the show is over, the revolution is just starting to kick in: now that
so many more people are paying attention to school food issues, I'm
looking forward to the discussions about the issues we're all upset
about and ready to change.

I encourage you to sign
Jamie's petition
and help us all get more than 1 million
signatures. But don't stop there. Help us get more money
for school food
. Work with us to change education policy to support
healthy kids. And then be part
of the discussion as ag policy is debated
in our country. Our kids
depend on it all.

—–
Follow up: Someone mentioned to me that I didn't include USDA nutrition
standards in this list. True. I didn't. I'll tell you why. The nutrition
standards sorely need updating, and the Institute
of Medicine gave an excellent framework
for how to make these
changes. We will be seeing these implemented in the next few years, so
this is happening. However, when these nutrition standards are updated,
it will cost schools even more money to serve food that meets required
standards. This means that getting more resources is the first and most
important step to improving school food. We can have the perfect
nutrition standards but without resources to implement them, we'll
continue to serve our children unhealthy food.