From Britain, Food for Thought

Published in The L.A. Times, OpEd, September 15, 2005

“IT CONTAINED more lumps, hairs and unexplained black things than one would have thought possible,” wrote George Orwell half a century ago about his English school food. But Orwell didn’t know how lucky he was.

Over the last 20 years in Britain, his porridge lunch was replaced with processed, additive-ridden fare such as Turkey Twizzlers — 30% turkey, 70% other, shaped like Shirley Temple’s ringlets — that makes his lunch seem almost nutritious. And the number of obese children has tripled in those 20 years. Obesity rates in Britain — 22% — are second only to the United States.

About a year ago, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (the “Naked Chef” — the ingredients were stripped down, not him) thought drastic action was needed; not just long-range policy changes but triage. In a Channel 4 series called “Jamie’s School Dinners,” Oliver took charge of school lunches in one school, then two schools and then the entire London borough of Greenwich, with 60 schools and 20,000 school meals per day. Oliver’s aim was not just to improve kids’ health; he wanted to show the government that it could be done, and fast.

Even the schools’ catering staffs agreed that change was in order. The most ardent resisters were the kids — they liked the junk. In the show, one boy said he’ll take “anything that you can cook with grease.” Faced with vegetable-tainted food, one girl said, “I’ll starve.” It took six months of cajoling, with no alternative menu, to win over the kids at the first school. The parents sent hate mail. The kids chanted, “Jamie Oliver go away.” On the first day, more than 100 students wouldn’t touch the food. On the last day, only two children didn’t eat with obvious relish.

The frozen, processed meat from Botswana was replaced by local, organic fresh meat in identifiable forms, such as thigh, breast and leg. Many of the children had never seen meat this way, even at home. Many had had few encounters with a vegetable. But the deep fryer was abandoned and the catering staff, or “dinner ladies” as they’re called here, picked up long-forsaken produce. In the end, it all came to the same price as the processed food, give or take a few pennies: about 65 cents per lunch.

One menu was cannelloni stuffed with cheese and spinach, Thai chicken curry with butternut squash, chickpea and leek soup. Sometimes, Oliver learned, trickery helps: The pasta sauce hides seven vegetables.

As a result of the show, and the surge of support that followed, the government promised to spend more than $500 million to improve school meals throughout Britain. Many districts banned Turkey Twizzlers.

On Wednesday, I joined some 9-year-old girls at the Charlton Manor Primary School in Greenwich for lunch. I sampled fish fillet with breadcrumbs, sweet and sour chicken, coleslaw, salad with balsamic dressing, cooked fresh peas and, for dessert, a warm, mildly sweet rice pudding with pineapple. We all finished our plates.

The head chef told me she could finally stand behind the food she was serving. The school planted a garden. The teachers report that their classrooms are now calmer after lunch. The school taught nutrition before, but the theory was without resonance before the kids could feel the difference.

The girls fumbled with their knives and forks, and the teachers corrected them; they’d never really had to use cutlery with the old processed meals. I thought of what Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant and founder of the cutting-edge Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, calls “the civilizing and socializing effect of the table.” I asked the girls if they’d take their Twizzlers back. They said yes. But at the same time, they seemed happily resigned to their healthy fate.

Steps are being taken to combat obesity in California too. Today, a summit in Sacramento will address childhood health and nutrition. Last week, state lawmakers passed legislation that bans the sale of sodas on campuses during school hours.

But if a TV show can change the way thousands of children eat and how a nation thinks about food, what will it take to do the same in California, where almost a third of the children are overweight? Maybe we need to enlist a battalion of celebrity chefs, call in the camera crews and find out. If reality TV can serve people, rather than just entertain them, let’s use it now.