Thursday, March 25, 2010

Food, Inglorious Food

Jamie Oliver, a television chef from Great Britain (by "television chef" I mean he has a cooking show on television, not that he cooks teevees) has a new show in America.  It's a sort of modified reality show: he's in Huntington, West Virginia, the most unhealthy city in the United States, trying to convince people to change their diets.

I watched the pilot, and it was interesting.  Oliver makes some good points.  Americans eat a lot of garbage, calorie-rich, fatty, highly processed food that clogs our arteries and gives us cancer and makes us take on the approximate dimensions of Jabba the Hut.  What's more --and this is a genius observation -- the caloric, fatty, garbage we're eating doesn't even taste good; it is as aesthetically void as it is nutritionally empty.  We are habituating our children into accepting the caloric, the fatty, the bad as their standard.

Oliver is an affable fellow.  He sounds like he grew up in a London working class neighborhood, speaking a sort of refined Cockney that is for some reason tremendously appealing to the American ear (I have two theories about this. First, Americans are to the British what insecure newlyweds are to their successful and intimidating parents: resentful, too eager to prove their competence and self-sufficiency, but still in awe of the old folks.  Second, we heard Dick Van Dyke do that awful, ridiculous British accent in "Mary Poppins," and we've been transfixed ever since.  That, or we've spent the last four decades being secretly in love with Julie Andrews.)  He jumps around in a sort of controlled hyperactivity. And he seems to really, truly know his way around a kitchen.

Where the show breaks down for me is in the choice of battle field.  Oliver decides that the key to changing nutrition is changing school lunch menus.  His argument is that for most children, school lunch is their only meal of the day.  Teach them good eating habits there, and those will carry on to the rest of their lives.  Mister Oliver spends much time running his fingers through his hair, his forehead wrinkled in angst, fretting over the chicken nuggets and potato pearls and prefab pizzas the lunch ladies -- excuse me, cafeteria workers -- are shoveling onto the plastic trays of Young Huntington.

He's missed the point.  There are two universals in public school food service: a significant number of the women serving the meals look like they have lengthy criminal records; and the food they serve is garbage.  Forty years ago, lunch in North Tonawanda was a sad skein of bad pizza, suspicious-looking hot dogs and mystery meats, with nary a fruit, vegetable or free range chicken in sight.  We lived.

We lived because most of us, at least a few days a week, brought lunch from home.  And those lunches were reasonably healthy.

The problem is not what the kids are eating at school.  The problem is that families don't eat meals together anymore.  The problem is that people don't grow gardens in their back yards.  The problem is that mothers are too busy (or too disinterested) to pack lunches, or to mind what they serve at home.  Fat, unhealthy kids are a byproduct of family disintegration, not food at school.

You can change school lunches all you want.  If families aren't functioning, it's just straws in the wind.

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