School Lunch and America’s “fattest city”

A few years ago the CDC issued a report (link here) about behavioral risk factors associated with the leading causes of death in the US.  Some of the these included the number of permanent teeth a person had, their level of physical inactivity, and the presence of chronic conditions like diabetes.  Long story short, a media frenzy ensued and Huntington, West Virginia was dubbed the “fattest city in America,” based upon interpretation of the CDC’s results.  Cue the Appalachian stereotypes.

Enter celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and the magic of reality television produced by ABC.  If we look past the editing and conventions, Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, is actually an interesting way to begin thinking about school lunch.  The premise of the show is that Jamie, having “revolutionized” school lunches in England is coming to Huntington to save them from the obesity epidemic.  I’m pretty sure most of the things he tried to put in place have long since been done away with, but that right there gets to one of Levine’s points, that school lunch is only partly about children’s nutrition.  In fact, Levine opens with the failed attempts of celebrity chefs to fix lunch.

Should you find some free time I managed to find the entire show (we’ll see how long it remains up).  The early episodes give visuals to the absurd nutritional guidelines, fat content, and prepackaged foods stored in giant warehouses—the “food” aspect—of school lunches, but they also touch on the larger significance of the school lunch program–the politics if you will, because try as they might, it can’t be avoided (and as always class is there, but never really acknowledged).




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  1. dygottlieb

     /  February 18, 2012

    (7:35) Oliver confronts the “lunch rule books.” Here are all those structural forces governing school food–USDA regulations, nutritional requirements, budgets constraints, etc–made tangible.

    Reading Levine, you begin to see how complex/oppressive/long-standing these political forces are. As much as Oliver may try, he’ll find it’s not merely a matter of changing tastes or shaming families into making “better choices.” Ultimately, those choices are constrained by some powerful economic and political boundaries. Depressing, no?

  2. This debate always results in these unlikely bedfellows – you have Jamie Oliver decrying federal regulation as an impediment to letting local actors fix the problem. On that, a bunch of private food service companies agree – they could do this more easily and cheaper without any USDA regulations. Although the present regulations are the wrong ones, wrought by the wrong compromises, with ineffective enforcement/implementation, it’s hard to be optimistic about ‘free market’ solutions. Isn’t it odd the people who bristle at the government telling them what they can and can’t eat, don’t mind at all when a few agricultural companies effectively limit and make available what foods people can eat. The illusion of freedom to choose.

    Levine is great on the historic origin of federal intervention – left to their own devices, localities would simply fail to feed poor or African American children, or would provide fast food crafted from subsidized HFCS with dead zero nods to nutrition.


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