The Naked Chef Exposed, part Trois!

Jamie Oliver in the news… stirring up a storm on the food listserves! (Part Three)

The television show is up to the third episode and the lists are STILL buzzing! The current crop of comments question why Jamie Oliver (now universally shortened among posters to the sexy/chic/intheknow acronym “JO”) isn’t being accepted (supposedly), why other food celebrities haven’t garnered as much interest as “JO”, and why it takes a food celebrity to excite people about school food. There have been articles in the NYT as well as a blog post from a school food activist in the Atlantic ( Overall, there seems to be more support of JO, and less horror about the tone of the show. Regardless, a deep skepticism seems to exist, and I am still wondering why.

That’s a rhetorical question, of course, because I do think I have a few reasons – they are probably not the only ones, but might be interesting to think about.

But first, I want to highlight the work of people who are doing something about school food. I’m only going to mention a few groups, so keep in mind there are HUNDREDS of people working to improve school food.

This anonymous blogger, a teacher, is eating school food everyday:

Chef Bobo has been doing some amazing things with lunches at the Calhoun school:

The Renegade Lunch Lady is an inspiration to us all:

Here in Philadelphia there is the remarkable Urban Nutrition Initiative:

And let’s not forget the Edible Schoolyard:

So, to return to the query most recently heard on the lists, “will JO’s effort make a difference and why aren’t more people aware of these school lunch problems?” I’ll propose some reasons.

First, there are programs trying to create change, and they are doing so (see the list above, a few of many). Mostly these groups are operating on a small scale of one or several schools, so awareness outside of their catchment area is too often limited. While those of us in the food change world are VERY aware of them, much of the rest of the country is not. So JO is big news, and it seems like yes, indeed, he’s ‘starting’ a revolution.

Second, I think that just as Alice Waters gets people riled up, JO does as well because nobody likes to be told they are not performing optimally in matters of diet and health (see this story in the LA Times about Waters:,0,3120516.story?page=1). In other words, it’s not just that someone is telling others what to do, it’s that they are telling others what to do when the others know that they really – ahem – SHOULD be doing it already. Nagging is annoying, especially food/health nagging, which enters the moral identity sphere and makes everyone feel guilty.

But third and most important, I think the primary reason that JO’s program is getting so many knickers in a twist is that this is one of the VERY first times that the public is being made aware that school food problems are SYSTEMIC. To quote wholesale from one of the more recent ASFS posters “Jamie Oliver is opening the same can of worms that many others around the country are opening to try to change a broken entrenched system, in his case it’s on TV.  In my community mothers, teachers and community food activists are facing the same situations and obstacles as they question and try to address the complex nature of school lunch reform. Jamie has turned a spotlight on this problem and school lunch will become a topic of discussion in more households around the country because of this TV program, this is needed“.

Contemplating bad choices is one thing – and easily amended (Choose better! Be more responsible!) – but grappling with sure knowledge that the system is broken is frightening, because how and where does one start to fix the system when it seems intractably busted?

Most of the United State’s discourse about food is framed as personal choice; bad food is a bad choice and thus bad nutrition a personal issue, a personal problem, and (too often) considered a personal moral failing. Certainly this has been the message of previous attempts to change food habits, in particular the quite excellent TV show “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids”. This is a message that resonates nicely in our country, which eagerly embraces a YOYO (You’re On Your Own) as opposed to WITT (We’re In This Together”) health policy. Personal moral and food failures can be fixed in the YOYO world, but problems caused by broken systems are impossible to fix without embracing a WITT perspective. Because the JO Food Revolution TV show demonstrates that the problems are multi-causal and multi-sectoral (home, school administrators and employees, the USDA requirements, the food distribution system, public attitudes and the food industry) the viewer is left with the ugly and frightening realization that whole durned food system is going to have to change if little Johnny and Jane are going to be able to eat healthy food on a regular basis at home and in school. And that, dear reader, is a brand-new revelation for too many of the average TV audience. Yes, we’d think that Food Inc., Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and all the rest would have made that clear to the public but the – ahem – inconvenient truth is that they haven’t, because too much of what they expose can be understood within a ‘choose better’ framework. School lunches are where the capacity for choice ends, and the sure knowledge of loss of choice and agency is frightening, especially in a philosophically consumerist society. School food is the (a cliché, sorry) canary in the coal mine for our food system, and too many people are just waking up to the dearth of chirping. But worst of all, they are waking up to the knowledge that by working alone and singly (the Cowboy Metaphor) or choosing wisely (the Good Consumer Fantasy) they can’t make a difference. Fixing the system requires systemic solutions, which are only possible when a WITT philosophy is embraced. The idea that no man is an island unto himself is sometimes hard for Americans to accept.

It’s past time for a new socio-moral consensus of thought and action about food, and that’s a terrifying process to contemplate in a country that too often substitutes loud expressions of individual piety and descriptions of personal choice for moral action, and believes that only individual action can solve problems. How do we start to change the system, when we’ve stopped believing that the system exists?

Posted by Janet Chrzan

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