Monday, June 20, 2011

Food and Books and TV Oh My!

These blueberries, sprinkled with a
little sugar, were so good.
As some of you know know I spent a week blogging about my adventures trying to feed myself for a week on the U.S. equivalent of one British pound per day.

At about the same time, a few blogs I read wrote scathing reviews of "Extreme Couponing," a cable television show I have never watched. While I can't believe people actually pay to watch this show, it clearly has struck an apocalyptic, voyeuristic nerve.

I wanted to counteract "Extreme Couponing" with highlighting a show - on free, network television - that is making an earnest effort to change bad eating habits at the root: kids and schools. I'm talking about Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. If you haven't seen this one-hour show, take the time to check it out. This Friday will, I think, be this season's finale.

And what a finale it just might be. Last season, Jamie attempted to change eating habits in the school system of the "fatest city in America" - Huntington, West Virginia. He took a lot of public verbal flogging, but did manage to work with city, federal USDA officials, as well as the public school system's cooks in an effort to get them off processed, pre-packaged meals and onto an eating regime based on whole, fresh foods. At the same time, Jamie also opened up a kitchen in Huntington, where kids and their parents could learn how to cook in a more healthy manner. All this was filmed and televised. I gave the citizens of Huntington a lot of credit for allowing Jamie's cameras unfettered access. It was a cold, stark, most often unpleasant truth.

So why the potentially big finale this year? Because Jamie set hit cooking sights, and cameras, on the Los Angeles Unified School System. The school system has definitely been unified - in sending him packing. When he first started filming, the show wasn't on the air, and so school officials (basically, the former head of the school board) gave him the run-around, and even sent police in to monitor the scene. However, since the show's airing commenced in June, things have drastically turned around for Jamie, thanks to his own ingenuity, as well as the sacking of the school board head.

Most importantly, Oliver is showing, in some amazing ways, the huge flaws in our public school system's dietary approach. One such approach had to do with a school bus, a dump truck, and sugar. Fill in the blanks. 

And, since many children in public schools rely so heavily on this food (for many, it's their main source of food), he deftly links childhood obesity and food-related diseases (most notably diabetes) to the school lunch system. What the cameras in Los Angeles are also recording is the cultural and socio-economic intersection of our public school system's food approach, and Oliver doesn't even need to address it. One need only watch.

You might be able to catch previous episodes on, if you're so inclined. Oliver is likeable, and his way with the kids easy, respectful and caring.

Aditionally (since you know I'm all about the books), please take the time to read In Defense of FoodMichael Pollan's absolute tour de force on why we need to chuck out all prepackaged "foods." A truly clear and gifted writer, Pollan's entire approach can be summed up in seven words (found on the back cover, so I'm not giving away the store): "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Besides, any book with the subtitle "An Eater's Manifesto" would get my attention every time. You'll be glad you picked it up.
Finally, I found a relatively unknown book right around the time I was getting ready for my weekly food odyssey that some might find useful. Quick-Fix Healthy Mix by Casey Kellar and Nicole Kellar-Munoz offers an amazing array of home-made substitutes for much of the pre-packaged foods many of us rely on so heavily. (Ok, I know I have.) After this mother/daughter team gets through the basics of things like recipe sizes, shelf life, and the necessary tools to put these mixes together, they walk the reader through virtually every inch of one's kitchen, providing healthful, homemade alternatives that can be prepared and stored by everyone. No special kitchen skills are needed. From breakfast to soup and bean mixes to barbeque sauces and other condiments, I cannot tell you how jam-packed the 200+ pages of this book are. It has been a truly pleasant surprise.

Have a good week. I'm off to hull some fresh strawberries.


  1. I've never seen either show but I do think it's time for a food revolution, especially in the schools. It's time we stopped poisoning our kids. I think occasional treats are fine but only with a balanced, healthy diet as a foundation. Sugar and carbs and processed foods should not be the foundation! My son refused to eat the school lunches all through school. Even if he forgot to bring his lunch he wouldn't eat the school lunch. He said it made him sick if he did. His system wasn't used to that kind of stuff I guess.

  2. I wish all schools had big enough gardens to provide lunch for the students. Some schools do this.
    Interesting book reads; I'll have to check them out.
    As for the couponing, Nate Berkus had these two gals on how to save. But I doubt any of the foods were organic. I definitely think cheaper is not certainly better.

  3. Interesting blog post. Jamie hit some snags when he did that here too ...When schools here tried banning things like crisps, parents would sneak them through the fence to their kids.

  4. @toadinaboat: Your son was ahead of his time. The biggest bummer is that the public school lunch program is run by the USDA. But taking a hard look at the USDA is like contemplating the train track's third rail. :(

    @kepanie: While I hate heaping any more responsibility on public schools, food is a big one, so I applaud any school that can grow some (or all) of its food, or have partnerships with local gardens. And the couponing: I'm a coupon clipper, but less so now for foodstuff. Check out (if you haven't) the Chinook Book - there are coupons in it for things you might actually want to eat. :)

    @Vivianne: When he was in Huntington last season, he definitely was undermined by parents sneaking things into lunches, as well as the cafeteria people. In LA, since the only school he could get into (and even that was shaky for a while) was a charter school with a student population that did not seem to have a very high parent participation rate, he got no issue from the students. In fact, the students really seem to gravitate toward him. These kids want the nutritional education, and are willing to work at it to learn new cooking and eating skills.

    As I've written before - there's a lot wrapped up in food!

  5. are this week's Wizard of Whimsy! CONGRATS - in case you didn't get my email, you can find your highlight here:

    So glad to have you play.

  6. LOVE Jamie and what he has been trying to do with school lunches. Have been following along with the Revolution and so disappointed with the LAUSD(?) and all of the walls and roadblocks they have thrown up along the way. Will be very interested in the finale.

    Also LOVE Michael Pollan. So many fascinating and knowledgeable bits in his books. Must reread.