He can cook, but can he fix education?
Dana Woldow – The conversation around improving public education increasingly is being dominated by ultra wealthy guys who have no background in education and whose own kids do not attend public schools; even celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is chiming in.
As he prepares to launch the second season of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, this time filmed in Los Angeles, Oliver is also trying to expand his reach beyond the cafeteria into running schools.
Like many of the non-educators who are driving education policy, Oliver is rich. His net worth from a cooking empire that includes books, TV shows, restaurants, the Jamie at Home cookware line, a lucrative deal with Britain’s upscale Sainbury’s food chain, and even his own line of cheese, was estimated a year ago to be about £65 million (about $105 million.) Sure, he can cook – but can he fix troubled schools?
According to Oliver’s Dream School reality TV show, which debuted in Britain March 2, the solution is replacing teachers with a faculty of experts in their fields, to inspire a class of teenaged drop outs. A bit of controversy (that life blood of successful reality TV) ensued when historian Dr. David Starkey, a guest faculty member, informed students “You are all here because you have failed” and then told a young man, “Come on, you’re so fat you couldn’t really move.”
The program has gotten mixed reviews in Britain, with Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker calling it “a shockingly arrogant TV experiment, which exists for no apparent reason other than to demoralise any genuine teachers watching, potentially to the point of suicide.”
Brooker describes Oliver’s goal of fixing Britain’s schools thus:
He wants to make a difference. Not by campaigning against education cuts – which might be boring – but by setting up his own school. Not one staffed by actual teachers – which might be boring – but by celebrities. And it won’t be open all-year round – which might be expensive – but for a few weeks. Thus our education system will be saved.
Sound familiar? Millions of viewers of last year’s sturm und drang first season of Food Revolution saw the TV chef turned education expert take on the town of Huntington, West Virginia (supposedly the fattest town in the US); one of Oliver’s goals was to make a difference in their school cafeteria meals. He did this not by railing against government underfunding of the school meal program – which might be boring – but by shaming the lunch ladies. He didn’t bother explaining that school meal programs which violate any of the myriad complex USDA regulations can lose their government funding, while still being required to feed low income students – which would be boring – but instead attacked the school nutrition director. And he never revealed that the school’s cafeteria budget couldn’t cover the cost of his healthier menu – because it was expensive, requiring both extra labor and higher priced ingredients – so the TV production company just quietly paid those costs.
But what did that prove – that someone operating completely outside the constraints of a regular school meal program (financial, regulatory, and social) can do things differently than someone who is forced to stay on budget and follow the rules?
As the American viewing public can never get enough of manufactured drama and controversy, Oliver is returning with a second season of, well, manufactured drama and controversy. Filming in Los Angeles (where he enrolled his own kids in private school), Oliver responded to the LAUSD’s refusal to allow him to film in their schools by ramping up the drama with his claim that “Really, my job is trying to inspire people, trying to educate people, but also get them to have clear opinions about stuff, and stir up a little bit of trouble where some of the bad guys are getting away with murder.” The promo for the second season has Oliver promising that the LAUSD shutout means “It’s war!”
Really, Jamie – murder? War? This is a school district trying to stay focused on, you know, education. You’re not taking on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
These people Oliver is confronting and humiliating on national TV, the school officials and lunch ladies, are the small potatoes. When the second season of Food Revolution begins in mid-April, here’s what I would like to see: Jamie dressed in his giant vegetable costume marching into the halls of Congress with a tray of precooked frozen and reheated meals from a nearby public school. Thanks to decades of underfunding by the Federal government, heat ‘n’ serve meals are all most schools are able to provide to nourish their low income students through their day of preparing for the high stakes testing that has come to represent the “success” or “failure” of American education.
Let Jamie chase our Senators through the halls of the Capitol Building and insist that they eat the kind of school lunch served to millions of children every day. Then he can shove a microphone in their faces and demand they tell the viewers why it is that Congress was only able to squeeze out a paltry 6 cents increase to the per-meal budget for school lunch, to take effect in late 2012, and why they thought that taking that 6 cents from the budget for food stamps (now called SNAP) was going to help improve nutrition for the kids whose families rely on both SNAP and school meals to literally keep from starving. Now that would be a Food Revolution!
Dana Woldow is the parent of three children who attended public schools from kindergarten-12th grade. She has worked as a volunteer to help improve school food in San Francisco since 2002, and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org.
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