Monday, October 12, 2009

The Michelle Obama-Jamie Oliver Axis of Eating: The First Lady Has The "Secret Weapon" The British Chef Needs

The White House has a must-read book, which Oliver might want to memorize...
British superstar chef Jamie Oliver has a healthy eating agenda that's very similar to that being newly promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama, the White House, and USDA. But Oliver is televising his campaign, which was the subject of Putting America's Diet on a Diet, the cover story in the New York Times magazine's annual food issue. Oliver has invaded US turf to shoot "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" in Huntington, West Virginia, which the AP identified last year as one of the unhealthiest towns in America, thanks to an obesity rate of almost fifty percent for adults. Oliver is seeking the same kind of changes in the town that Mrs. Obama has started with her building health and nutrition campaign, but Oliver's hoping to do it in the time it takes to shoot enough footage for a six-part series. Oliver plans to rapidly transform the incredibly poor eating habits in Huntington by teaching locals to shop and cook, as well as by creating a healthy school lunch program that eliminates junk food. Oliver's dealing with a population that's entirely food illiterate, lacking in financial resources, and in love with local joints like Hillbilly Hot Dogs, a popular eatery that has enshrined a fifteen pound hamburger on its menu. In other words, the town is similar to towns all across America (minus the very high obesity rate...), and contains the kind of people Mrs. Obama--and the White House and USDA--are hoping to reach with an ambitious food agenda. (Above: Mrs. Obama)

Part of Oliver's healthy eating/school lunch campaign failed. A model to learn from?
Oliver did the same kind of town re-vamp and school lunch revamp in two different shows that were shot and aired in the UK: "Jamie's School Dinners" and "Jamie's Ministry of Food." But Times writer Alex Witchell points out that Oliver himself admits that he had only partial success in changing Britain's eating habits, despite million dollar budgets and multiple years of the TV-show salvos. Although "Jamie's School Dinners" exposed the terrible state of lunch in British schools--and ultimately caused the British government to invest almost a billion dollars in changing its national school lunch program to a freshly made, locally sourced farm to school program--many students are now opting out, choosing instead to eat fast food. Oliver says in the Times story that only about half the schools are functioning properly, with an inability to meet dietary guidelines and cafeterias that lack trained staff. So Oliver has provided an excellent failure model to learn from, especially since White House Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass is now leading Team Good Lunch out into the local school lunch field, and exploring ways to change America's national school lunch programs. Of course, Oliver had some incredible successes that can be examined, too. (Photo is from the Times story; Oliver sits atop a year's worth of fat he eliminated from a school lunch program)

Dr. David Kessler's Book Is a Must-Read in the White House
But there's a critical piece of the healthy eating puzzle that's being taken very seriously by the White House, which Oliver is apparently not considering. Any attempts to change America's eating habits must include an approach that somehow counteracts the profound, drug-like addiction that people have to unhealthy foods. Former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler details this in his book The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite, and the book has become something of a bible at the White House. Dr. Kessler holds that our bodies and minds are completely changed when we consume sugar, fat, and salt, and once these brain chemistry changes have become ingrained, it's very, very difficult to change. Kessler maintains that there needs to be all kinds of behavioral changes focused on countermanding what he calls conditioned hypereating, which he believes is on the rise in America, thanks to a devastating and complicated series of evolutionary, cultural and marketing events in the modern world (as well as the development of food science, to increase palatability, which has made unnecessary foods irresistable). So while creating better food infrastructures in schools, and promoting educational programs that include cooking and gardening, and promoting better access to healthy foods for the general population through edible gardens and farmers markets, etc., ect., is crucial--these are only part of the very complicated dynamic that will help people permanently embrace healthier eating. All kinds of other stategies have to be developed to account for conditioned hypereating--which is now culturally acceptable, if you believe Kessler--as well as to bust the firm hold brain chemistry has on conditioned responses to food. Dr. Kessler's book was published in April of this year, and wasn't available two years ago when Oliver was attempting to transform Britain's eating habits. But maybe Oliver should grab a copy now that he's attempting to change America's eating habits. And maybe you should read Dr. Kessler, too, Reader, if you want to keep abreast of the ideas behind the White House food policy agenda....

*The Oliver in America series will be broadcast in six parts in 2010. Of note: The series was originally supposed to be shot in Virginia, supposedly for closer access to the Obama White House, according to Hollywood insiders. Oliver met the Obamas while cooking British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's G20 dinner in April. No word yet on whether or not he'll be guest cheffing at the White House any time soon.

Photos: Mrs. Obama via AP; Jamie Oliver by Mark Peterson/New York Times