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.


  1. EDG

    I love this article. Even my beloved Yankees are now on this bandwagon. Players donating millions to proven weak, unaccountable charter schools.

  2. Laura Brainin-Rodriguez

    Thank you for shedding light rather than heat. We have lots of finger pointing about what ails our schools, what is causing the childhood obesity epidemic and why it is hard to change what is going on in our educational system.

    What is lacking is this type of clear and concise analysis that points out it takes real money to fix education and school food. Until we prioritize funding education, including the food served in schools, over tax breaks for very wealthy individuals we will be be railing against the wrong villains in this drama.

    Thank you Ms. Woldow, for helping us to make the case for adequate resources to tackle these problems.

  3. A Tough Critique of Jamie Oliver from Dana Woldow

    [...] News published a critical opinion piece by school food reformer Dana Woldow regarding Jamie Oliver’s recent foray into education [...]

  4. liseetsa

    You are the reporter. YOU chase down our senators. WE should be chasing down our senators. He is aimed at the people who can make changes at the most immediate level. If their budget is limited, don’t buy so much. You know they are throwing away TONS of food. Have the students order their meals a for the month like a hospital stay. They know approximately how much food to order. “FOOD” not chemical, just add water crap.

    I LOVE JAMIE AND WHAT HE IS TRYING TO DO!!! There are no excuses for the condition of our food situation and health issues. But he has a few solutions. Do not kill the messenger. He is not telling you anything other than COMMON sense.

    • Dana Woldow

      Actually, liseetsa, I am not a reporter – I am a mother of 3 public school graduates who has worked as a volunteer (ie – on my own time, and my own dime) for 9 years to try to improve the food in the public schools where I live. Forcing students to preorder food a month in advance is not a solution; school districts using the National School Lunch Program are required by federal law to make meals available to ALL low income students every day, regardless of whether they have preordered or not.

      I have no problem with Jamie Oliver drawing attention to the fact that school meals could be healthier; many of us have been trying to do that for years, and he has a much bigger megaphone with which to do it, so that’s good. But he needs to place the blame for the current state of school food squarely where it belongs – on a Congress which demands 64 cents worth of improvements to school meals but provides only 6 cents to pay for it, and which takes that 6 cents from other food assistance programs.

      Just because school officials are closer to the problem than Congress does not mean they are empowered to fix the problem. Schools are already strapped for cash and are laying off teachers in droves; how are they supposed to pay for better food? Schools shouldn’t have to choose between meeting kids’ academic needs and meeting their nutritional needs, and Jamie Oliver does not help when he riles parents up to blame the schools rather than Congress.

  5. Robert D. Skeels

    We saw Mr. Oliver once on Food Network and he came off as smug and obnoxious — two qualities essential to running charter-voucher schools. We didn’t watch him again.

  6. Kegan

    I think the best thing a school district can do is hire a food service director that really cares about nutrition. If you have a food service director that tries to bring in whole grains in pizza crust, pasta and bread and who looks to add fresh fruit offerings and who encourages school gardens and works with local farms to provide vegetables and who works with the parent organizations on increasing nutritious snack offerings…that is the person who can bring about incremental change with dramatic overall results. A food service director who can do all this and still maintain a self-sustaining food service program is a genius…we are a lucky district.

  7. jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal

    “Jamie Oliver does not help when he riles parents up to blame the schools rather than Congress.” good point dana. thank you for articulating that so concisely.

    What most parents don’t know is that the schools have little to no discretion over school food. the exception to that rule is schools that not part of the NSLP. Even if you have a food service director or principal who wants real food for kids, their hands are often tied unless funds to subsidize the program and change management resources are available. It is the government who is feeding kids in schools, not the schools themselves. The government is the “entity” that needs to get feeding kids right. The food served to students in most districts is little more than vitamin enriched junk food.

    Because there is such a gap between the low nutrient, highly processed “as-is” menu most students experience in lunch and the “to-be” that any reform will be tough for students to accept without also getting nutrition education. in the classroom. or at least on campus, during the school day. more than a couple times a year.

    menu reform is only one part of the problem. food isn’t nutritious if it isn’t eaten. getting students to accept any menu reform coming down the pipe (assuming it’s feasible and actually going to happen) is the next big challenge our nation faces.

    how do we teach a nation of processed food loving people to eat real food when it’s available?

  8. russische frau

    I think, this theme is quite actual now. 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.

  9. Isabella Chu

    The thing is, there are people who *have* done it in public schools. They are just willing to work hard and be resourceful and creative (Ann Cooper, first in Berkeley, then in Colorado), Revolution Foods provides locally sourced, 50% organic meals to schools for just $0.25 more than the federal reimbursements and assists schools in obtaining grants to cover the difference. The problem isn’t there isn’t a way, it’s that there isn’t a will. Most low income parents could even cough up $0.25/day to provide their child a healthy delicious meal instead of a horrible one. Why not at least present them with the option rather than having the schools contract with junk food companies?

    Granted, food policy in this country is appalling, but we can’t wait for congress to act to improve the situation. Habits, and health are being formed now. It is possible to change things in our schools without an act of congress.

  10. Dana Woldow

    It takes more than just the will to make change – it also takes more money. Berkeley schools receive a state income stream called Meals for Needy Pupils which provides an extra $1.40 for every free and reduced price breakfast and lunch served in Berkeley; about 1/3 of California school districts receive MNP money but the amount varies from district to district, and 2/3 of California districts don’t receive it at all. Only school districts which had a certain kind of property tax override in place in one specific years in the 1970s are eligible for this money; other districts cannot get it, ever. So it took more than just will in Berkeley; they also get a big share of extra money not available to most other school districts.

    In Boulder, Ann Cooper receives enormous financial support both from an outside fundraising foundation and also from the Boulder school district, which in December transferred over $600,000 from their general fund into the cafeteria fund to make up for a shortfall there. There is nothing illegal or questionable about this – the same thing happens in San Francisco where I live – but it does indicate that the existing Federal money for the meals program is not sufficient to cover the cost of better food.

    As for Revolution Foods, the price they charge does not include the cost of labor to serve the meals, or count and claim the students taking meals (required for government reimbursement) or the cost of labor to fill out the mountains of paperwork to receive the reimbursement, or to process the free meal applications, or the cost of utilities to run the cafeteria (where the meals have to be reheated before serving, and the milk kept cold until serving), or the cost to clean up the cafeteria after meal service; all of these expenses must be paid by the schools out of other funds, because Revolution Foods charges more than the entire government reimbursement for a free meal just to cover the food. So again, nothing illegal about this, but the Federal money is not sufficient to cover the cost of a Revolution meal.

    As for charging low income parents, that would be illegal, as the federal regulations for the meal program require schools participating in the Naional School Lunch Program to make at least one balanced meal per day available to low income children at no charge. It takes more than the will – it also takes more money to improve school food.

    • John Paul

      With all respect to your volunteer efforts and attention to this tragic matter of school lunches, I truly believe you need to take a step back and reconsider your bashing of Jamie Oliver. As you stated, he has an enormous megaphone and, while his style doesn’t imitate yours, he has the ability to get results. Your approaches can be entirely different yet both reap enormous rewards. Remember, it’s about the kids, not about the adults.

      Thanks for all that you do!

      • tired teacher

        it also takes honesty, and the problems with someone like him, is that he bends and distorts realities so he can increase his public profile to increase his money making potential.

        and that does a great disservice to those who are desperately trying to create change by facing reality in its fullness

        • John Paul

          Harsh and cynical, your assessment of Jamie. We share very different views, but I respect your right to express yours.

          • tired teacher

            harsh and cynical? or simply honest? even if you assume that he isn’t in it for personal gain he still distorts reality in the way he portrays things.

            look, i work in a school with a health and wellness policy that dictates the choices of food available at lunch, i am all for it. but the way he presents his ideas is disingenuous and that is bad for improving education.

        • Chrs M

          I am glad you are retired I would not want you teaching my kids with your agenda. Next you will tell me its ok for the outlandish money the Superintendent makes. While other budgets are shrunk! There are reasons why California is always broke your kind of thinking.

  11. Joe Nathan

    Three brief comments:
    1. For those of you interested in learning how a local school district, its union and teachers eliminated the hs graduation gap between African American and white students, I’d encourage you to read (and perhaps comment) here:

    2. One person commented that Oliver comes across as “smug and obnoxious — two qualities essential to running charter-voucher schools.” Having been in public education for 40+ years as an inner city public school teacher, administrator, parent, PTA president, researcher and advocate, I’ve encountre a variety of school leaders in district and charter public schools. Most are extremely caring and hard working, not “smug and obnoxious.’ I recognize my experience may vary with others.

    3. Honoring and learning from school leaders and educators who do make a difference has helped students in many places. We are bringing one of the Cincy school leaders to Minneapolis/St. Paul for presentations later this month, and more than 100 district and charter educators have signed up to listen and learn. Hope you will check out

  12. John Paul

    @tired teacher

    Actually, harsh and cynical seems more accurate. Every single line item and workaround to address thia minumental problem will not and cannot be discussed or featured on the show. It simply isn’t possible.

    The overarching issue here is that Jamie is getting the issue TALKED about, is getting it in the news. He probably doesn’t have the best of the best when it comes to ideas but there has to be a starting point. He has the ability to get international attention to the matter. Perhaps with his spotlight shining on this issue the hard working activists at the local level may be have an easier time of it.

    This seems more like individuals who have dedicated so much of their lives to trying to make a difference with regard to school food feeling as though Jamie is stealing their thunder.

    • tired teacher

      except as someone in education, someone who spends every day on the ground as it is, i am getting tired of people who know nothing about education presenting things to the public as truth, that are at best half truths and at worst lies.

      This does nothing to improve the situation and instead exacerbate the problem by implying to the public that realities exist that simply do not.

      i’m getting tired of people who don’t know or don’t care what it really is like in education controlling public opinion.

      • Chrs M

        Than do something about it. Your a teacher educate us.

        • John Paul

          It’s easier to complain about how those outside education just don’t know or don’t understand. Never mind that being in education, or any career for that matter, for years and years can create the perception that everything has already been tried, that everything in one’s mind that can be done has been done. Maybe tiredteacher needs a well-deserved rest to recharge her or his batteries. A fresh perspective, a paradigm-shift, may really help.

          • tiredteacher

            it’s easy to complain about it, when you can’t do anything. people who don’t know anything about education (politicians, TV cooks) keep politicking until the programs they decide on are put in place, then we get told what to do.

            so we who are trained to be the teachers, who are the people working with the students never get to have a say in what we are doing, instead we are told what to do and how to do it, by people who aren’t trained in education.

            do you go see your lawyer when you are sick?

            do you go check with your doctor when your toiled is backed up?

            why do we go to everyone but the teachers to “fix” education?

        • tiredteacher

          i would, but people like you keep getting in the way

          • John Paul

            Well there are those of us who are going to continue to fight for all the tired teachers out there. You may not always agree with our methods or may think that we don’t know what we’re talking about, but we’re going to make the effort anyway. No more Wisconsins free-for-all-destroy-teachers-at-all-costs. It’s going to take those of us in business, those of us in politics, those of us outside education to fight for those of you inside education to help you to make a difference. We’re not all your enemies. You’ve got to open your heart and mind and start to believe this.

  13. tired teacher

    understand, i am not opposed to people outside education presenting ideas, offering assistance, trying to help.

    my problem is they don’t discuss their ideas with educators, they don’t try to refine their programs, projects etc… with the input of those that see the realities, they tend to ignore us, talk down to us and then blame us when their ideas don’t work.

    educators love help and ideas, we don’t trust it because far too often it is not done productively and is put in place either without our thoughts, or after ignoring our thoughts.

Leave a comment


April 7th, 2011

Dana Woldow Contributor EducationNews.org

Career Index

Plan your career as an educator using our free online datacase of useful information.

View All

On Twitter

Troubled student loan provider Sallie Mae re-brands with Navient offshoot http://t.co/fuipLP9ENE #education #highered #edchat

2 days ago

What are the real HS graduation rates in Texas? @TXbiz would like to know http://t.co/nfd3sPkwW8 #edchat #education #edreform

2 days ago

At many schools and colleges, disabled students lack the #edtech needed to excel http://t.co/8xauAQYlOY #edreform #education

2 days ago

On Facebook


Enter your email to subscribe to daily Education News!

Hot Topics