Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Food Fighter

I'm always willing to cop to my somewhat retrogressive knee-jerk reactions, so here goes.

Last night I happened to catch a few minutes of the season premiere of chef Jamie Oliver's ABC reality series, Food Revolution. The basic premise of the show is that Jamie travels across America doing essentially the same thing he's become both famous and notorious for in his native Britain: trying to educate people about the dangers of the processed foods they're eating and drag them, kicking and screaming if necessary, toward a more healthy diet, all in the name of combating the dreaded "obesity epidemic." It should surprise no one that Jamie concentrates a substantial portion of his effort on what kids eat -- specifically what schools feed to kids. Obviously at face value this is an inarguably noble cause.

It should be said that I'm actually a big fan of Jamie Oliver's. I used to watch his BBC show The Naked Chef semi-religiously; I bought several of his cookbooks and I always admired not only his technique as a chef but his philosophy of teaching people to cook rather than simply training them to adhere to recipes and mimic styles. In other words, I'm always more than willing to give Jamie the benefit of the doubt. But something about the tone of last night's show, and maybe the show in general, really irked the hell out of me.

You'd be a fool to deny that we have a very serious problem with obesity -- particularly childhood obesity -- in this country. While I've argued plenty of times before about the media's irrepressibly giddy lust for slapping the term "epidemic" on any and every problem that affects a large enough group, there are far too many obscenely overweight people across this great land of ours and if you think it's simply a personal decision that affects no one but them and the Wal-Mart scooters whose suspension systems they push to the point of collapse, think again; the fact is that you and I ultimately pay for the health issues all that weight brings with it, even if we're not the ones packing on the pounds (which statistics say we likely are at this point). We pay via higher health insurance premiums, higher prices from businesses forced to either accommodate the obese or work around the days off from work they're inevitably forced to take, and more strain on Medicare. According to one statistic, if the obesity rate in this country continues to climb, by 2018 it will cost America $344 billion annually. So, yeah, it's our collective best interest as a nation to slim the hell down.

So why did it bug me to watch Jamie Oliver condescendingly castigate the owner of an independent restaurant in Los Angeles for having the temerity to serve milkshakes that contain actual ice cream as opposed to, say, yogurt and fruit? That's exactly what happened at one point, with Jamie seeming exasperated at the notion that someone would want to serve a customer a milkshake if that's what he or she orders. "That's not a milkshake; that's a smoothie," the restaurant owner says. "But why does it have to be? It's a milkshake," Jamie responds. I get that Jamie Oliver is undertaking the herculean task of trying to get us to change the way we think about the food we eat on a level that's DNA-deep, but I couldn't help but think that the hapless guy trying to run the restaurant aimed at, oh I don't know, giving people what they ask for, was right and his inquisitor from across the pond was wrong. People should be encouraged to buy smoothies rather than milkshakes; each of us should know what one can do to our health versus the other. But if somebody wants a milkshake, that person should be able to get a freaking milkshake. Once again, while there's an argument to be made that I'll eventually pay for the ingestion of too many shakes one way or the other, I'm not sure I or anyone else should be denied something that's harmless in moderation just because somebody else can't control him or herself and treats fatty foods like cocaine.

Jamie Oliver's biggest push, though, is something he and his army of acolytes have been following up for the last 14 hours or so via the circulation of a petition on Twitter. Jamie's white whale of the night -- one which keeps jumping out of the water as the series progresses -- was of course school cafeterias, mostly because they've got a captive audience and have a monumental impact on how someone's diet develops throughout his or her life. So what do Jamie & Co. want? No "sugary milk" in school cafeterias. In other words, they want to see chocolate milk, strawberry milk, any milk besides just plain old milk banned. Again, I get the argument that little good comes from giving kids milk that pumps them full of sugar and empty calories, but is an outright ban on it really the way to go? What about the child who just likes chocolate milk and can actually handle drinking a carton of it without ballooning into a mocha-colored Violet Beauregarde? At what point do we draw the line? At what point do we decide to stop protecting some at the expense of the legitimate desires of others?

I'm all for healthier options at America's schools; that and food education are musts at this point in our evolution as a nation. But there's a difference between an option and a mandate. And while it makes sense for Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolutionaries to fire all guns at once with the understanding that it may be what's required to effect even a small amount of necessary change, there's still something decidedly draconian about pushing to reflexively relieve us of our freedom of choice when it comes to what we eat.

Now, who's up for an In-N-Out Double-Double?

Related: DXM: Feast of Burden/11.25.09


Anonymous said...

or work around the days off from work they're inevitably forced to take,

Just for the record, because anecdote is the plural of data, I'm fat and my hypochondriac skinny co-worker is always out sick, calling her doctor, scheduling appointments because she's got a fever of (gasp) 100, or a runny nose, etc etc etc. I haven't been to the doctor more than once a year for the annual physical in... ever.

I'm guessing most fat people don't go to the doctor because it's generally humiliating and uncomfortable. I sure as hell avoid it.

I promise you I will do my absolute best to get taken down by a massive coronary, thereby avoiding any medical care and also kicking up anyone else's premiums.

RivalenWinkie said...

Finally, I can comment with substance!
See, I live in Huntington, WV, home of football teams that fall from the sky and Jamie's first American food revolution. I am also a teacher in said town.

I wish I could speak to the true success or failure of his mission, but I don't think its been Langdon enough to say. From school to school the reaction is different. In some schools the food actually improved, even in taste. In others, the cooks just didn't "get it" and make everything as bland as possible.

In town, fresh local produce is more available as well as local "more organic" meats. Healthier places have got more press.

BUT there is major resentment among a lot of the populace. Maybe because we are West Virginians and that is sometimes just what we do, even with ourselves. Maybe because Oliver did have to strongarm his way into some of the less receptive schools.

Personally, I think he made a positive impact here. That said, he wasn't going around snatching away people's milkshakes and we still have heavenly strawberry milk.

VOTAR said...

The issue of school lunches is dicey-er than that simple topic though. Kids in school are something of a captive audience, without the kind of choice an adult might have available, and are at much greater risk because physically they are still developing and what ingredients they consume matters a bit more.

And, for the last few decades at least there has been a trend toward privatization of school lunch programs, to the point that many cafeterias are little more than food courts operated by fast food franchises. The school boards look at the money saved, not so much at the nutritional content of the meals. So in this arena, Oliver makes a very good case, albeit in a rather douchey way.

Matt said...

Well put sir. I could stand to lose 20 or so pounds and know what I should and shouldn't eat, but, sometimes I just feel the need for the Supersonic Double cheeseburger in all of it's glorious, greasy goodness. It's the nutritional equivalent to smoking a bowl of crack, but whatever. I know it's bad for me and that I may pay for it in other ways. I also hate it when someone sanctimoniously tries to tell me how I should eat and live. I absolutely despised the smarmy prick in the Truth commercials from a few years ago, to the point where I would go and smoke when they came on. I think Michael Pollan's books do a pretty good job of putting the information on nutrition and food production out there and letting people make their own decisions without a lot of preaching.

The Bacon said...

I don't have a problem at all with telling kids what they can and can't eat.

If a school is full of a bunch of lard ass kids, it shouldn't take Jamie Oliver to deal with it. The principal or Cafeteria manager should have dealt with it long before he got there.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's also the American adaptation of his television show that's pushing him to be more 'draconian', because that's what he has to be to work on U.S. television.

I know the British version of his, and even Gordon Ramsay's, show (and most shows, for that matter) are more subtle (dare i say, intelligent) and less hit the audience/subjects over the head to make a point. A point which, yeah, is pretty admirable...


Chez said...

Really, Bacon? That's odd coming from you. I thought you were a self-proclaimed "libertarian" or something like that.

Becky said...

Thank you. This was bothering me as well. I drank chocolate milk and ate a sugary snack that my mom packed for me everyday for lunch until middle school. I've always stayed thin, maybe because when school was out we would play outside for hours.

Moderation and healthy lifestyles are what Jamie (who I really respect) should be advocating, more so than this condescending view he's adapted. I'm all for a healthy smoothie, but if I'm having a rough week and feel really stressed, I will absolutely down a pint of Ben & Jerry's and not feel bad about it.

Chez said...

Great point, Jeff. If there's one thing we Americans love more than milkshakes, it's mindless conflict.

Katy said...

I watched the first episode of the first season last night and thought that while his intentions are noble he's going about it in a historically ineffective manner. I thought it was rather insulting how he went into the town and thought he could immediately impact change without taking into consideration any of the cultural or societal factors that had made them the fattest city in America in the first place. You can't just impose a set of standards on people and expect them to comply because it's the "superior" way to live. He's no better than the white anthropologists/missionaries who went into "savage" populations preaching a message of salvation from their wretched ways, and ended up eventually having their throats slit in the middle of the night or driven out by an angry mob. How little we learn from repeated lessons.

The Bacon said...

I am chez, but they are the kids and we are the grown ups. We decide what is best for them.

When they become adults, then they get to decide what goes in their bodies. Until then, it's up to us.

Kat said...

I agree with you on milkshakes, Chez. Any adult should be allowed to get a damn milkshake whenever they want.

Not with you on school cafeterias, though. Given our country's childhood obesity numbers, and knowing that how a child eats growing up has a huge impact on their eating habits for the rest of their lives, our schools should be doing all they can to promote healthy foods. Yes, these things should be the responsibility of the parent, but so many parents don't even bother. My kid is 10, and I pack his lunch for him every day because the school cafeteria serves chicken nuggets & tater tots almost every week. And what kid wouldn't pick chocolate milk over plain milk? If a parent is cool with their kid having chocolate milk, then awesome. They can serve it at home.

And really, was it entirely necessary to bring up an In-N-Out Double Double? You bastard.

Chez said...

Very fair point, Bacon -- and yes, I do understand the argument that if left to their own devices kids would eat garbage 24/7 (my own child would subsist totally on a diet of Skittles). But there's still something about the draconian nature of prohibition over education that gets to me.

Deacon Blue said...

If an In-N-Out Double Double is something that involves two women and a double-headed dildo, yeah, I'm down for that.

(Sorry, feeling somewhat crunchy that I actually don't have an In-N-Out in this fucking state...or a Sonic...or a Jack-in-the-Box...or even a proper Popeye's--the one Popeye's we do have is at a restaurant and serves up cafeteria style)

Deacon Blue said...

Ummm..."restaurant" should have been "rest stop." Guess I need to eat soon.

NoxiousNan said...

Fat chick weighs in (duh dum dum)

Now the restaurant owner is going to have to offer smoothies along with milkshakes and keep smoothies ingredients on hand that will go bad.

Now the bartering rate at school cafeterias will increase as will the black market trade of "goodies." I used to run a thriving business myself, and I can't be the only one that thought of it. That was back in the 80's, and I lived right next door to a candy store, and all the rich kids lived up on the hill and had alfalfa in their cubbards.

I watched the first episode in hopes of...change. Problem is I don't eat all that much. I eat about the same in calories as my friends who can see their toes without leaning forward. I maintain my current weight, just like skinny folks, but I don't lose weight (for the most part gained in two bouts of pregnancy).

None of my problems were addressed, like how expensive healthy foods are and how cheap crap is. I recall an episode of Biggest Loser where the trainer guy was sanctimoniously prepared to tell the fat mother of four how easy it would be to change her lifestyle, only to be confronted with the fact that she could feed her whole family a take-out pizza for $5 (I've done that many times...I did it last week). How can healthy food compete with that?

CNNfan said...

I needed an inspiration, so I watched CNN. Then it hit me, if CNN professionals can do it, well then I can too, as a CNNfan. Why not? So, I googled the preferred body weight for a male model for my height. "To lose weight, you have to stay under 1200 calories a day.", advised my doctor during my physical exam checkup.

Ice cream, fast food and beer I gave up, to quickly drop the first ten pounds. "A haircut like a news anchor.", I told my hairstylist, and she knew exactly what I was talking about.

For the finishing touches on my CNN look, I enrolled in a class for six pack abs at the gym to learn how to do crunches with a medicine ball and stability ball. A few weeks later and twenty pounds lighter, "That's it, you got it! Don't lose any more weight than that.", said my certified fitness trainer.

My friends complimented me, but did not hesitate to embarrass me, "Now you're fit, but your clothes don't fit." Suddenly everything I own fits me loose and I'm the last to notice. Fantastic! It ought to be an awesome summer!

Trixi said...

Totally off-topic, but important, I think: I follow your tweets. I clicked on your tweet of this article and was magically taken to HuffPo. Since I assume you don't get paid by HuffPo, wouldn't it be wise to link to your own blog, where clicks = ads = money? If it matters either way, please let me know.

Chez said...

I tweeted both links at separate times, Trix.

S said...

I hate obese (not overweight, but obese) people. They are lazy and don't make tough choices, like opting for 1 big mac instead of 2. That being said, I completely agree that "there's a difference between an option and a mandate." In schools, I think they should mandate healthy food, and educate children on the importance of eating healthy, because kids are clearly not getting this education at home. Most kids are also not getting healthy food at home, so this way they would get at least 1 good meal a day. On the contrary, I think Mr. Oliver is wasting his time with restaurant owners. What next- is he going to have a meet and greet with the CEO of McDonald's? Restaurants and food manufacturers will continue to sell whatever they please as long as they continue to make money. It is the individual's responsibility to make the choice to have a generally healthy diet. In a perfect world, people would refuse to eat this crap and those places would go out of business. However, junk food triggers the same receptors in our brains as most illegal drugs do so I don't see people completely giving up junk food.. ever. However, if you are overweight, get off of your fat butt, go for a walk, and stop eating the majority of your calories from processed, high-fat food. Instead, eat some fruits and vegetables. A small McDonald's milkshake won't kill you, but going there twice a week and not exercising will.
Bottom-line: like your points, love Jamie Oliver's overall goal, hate obesity.

Mart said...

Back when I was a kid... we had phys ed class from first grade through end of high school - five days a week. I doubt there are many school districts in the country that come close to this in our must cut school budget mentality.

Another thing that bothers me is on a perfect spring afternoon - weekends or after school - I'll ask my wife what is missing? It's kids playing outside. Don't know if it is TV, video games or concern over safety; but unless it is an organized sport (that usually suck with parent coaches) you almost never see kids outside playing. Seems to me sitting on your ass is more of a problem than what you eat. My friends and I would eat anything but most all of us were skinny as a rails (some chubby, but not like what you see now). We would be constantly running around playing real or made up games.

whatever said...

Putting aside the shock and awe I experienced at the size of Americans, the amount of crap food they consume, and the quantities dished up to them in restaurants, I was completely bowled over by the fact that said restaurants unashamedly do NOT cook from scratch. They buy pre-made stuff and heat it up and put it all together. This is "restaurant food"????
I had to spend a great deal more money than I would at home just to get a decent meal that looked/tasted like it was actually cooked on the premises.
American "recipes" are full of pre-made ingredients: a packet of this, plus a box of that, add in a packet of something else. That's NOT cooking!
Americans + food = Utterly and irretrievably clueless.

L. said...

The average smoothie is really not much better for you than a milkshake. And they're not at all the same thing, so I'll disagree with Jamie Oliver on this as well.

I have to say, I also think improving school lunches won't make that big of a difference in childhood obesity rates. It mostly comes down to the parents. They're the ones controlling dinner and usually breakfast, as well as summertime meals. How often do you see an obese child trailing a couple of healthy looking parents? I can't think of ever seeing it happen.

We've got chubby kids in the family and you know how they got that way? Their mom and dad always give them adult sized portions and always put another helping of food on their plates if they ask for it. There's no kid portions, no 'are you sure you're really still hungry?' and no asking them to wait a few minutes for the food to hit their stomachs. They can and do eat whatever junk food they want with no limitations of any kind. It's endlessly frustrating to me. I was never a skinny kid (took after the wrong side of the family for that), but I was also never really overweight. And you know what? The same can be said for how I am at 28. We are very much as our parents teach us.

Anonymous said...

(Note: This is written by someone who has not seen his dick in several years)

Make fatties pay for being fat. Charge them more for health insurance, doctor services, and the like. When you sign-up, you weigh in. Very simple. Limit Medicare disbursements for fatties. I am a card-carrying, undiluted, FDR-New Deal-Great Society DEMO-crat, but this is an issue of personal responsibilty. Diet or die! Call out and beat down food processors and purveyors who load up carbs and fat in cheap, avaialble food stuffs. Do all the PSA's you want to help steer fatties away from the fodder. But, the decision to stuff something in one's pie-hole is a solo flight.

J. Dack said...

I'll have my fries Animal Style thx.

Trixi said...

Hey Chez, you're in the LA Times...

Chez said...

Classic. I'll have to use a couple of those comments when I put together the usual post of outraged indignation at my silly little piece.

em said...

Maybe I sound like an old fart here - yeah, I know that food has a lot to do with the obesity in this country, but seriously, exercise should be stressed too. Unplug the damn video games and have your kids run around for a while.