British "Minister of Food" Jamie Oliver is back on the air after getting a brief boot from ABC to make room during May sweeps. But Oliver's failure to capture much viewership — his show is now relegated to Friday nights — is second only to his failure to fulfill his mission: fighting childhood obesity.
If you didn't spend your evenings last spring familiarizing yourself with British slang, here's a rundown: Oliver went to America's fattest city, Huntington, W.Va., and tried to reform school food by replacing pizza, chicken nuggets and chocolate milk with healthier options like roast chicken and unflavored milk.
The result? Kids scrunched their noses at the changes, rejected the "revolution" delivered to them on a plate and brought less-than-healthy food from home.
But Oliver's failure in West Virginia hasn't deterred him from a second season.
Neither has the fact that that the school system apparently doesn't want his "revolution." The Los Angeles Unified School District kicked Oliver out after two weeks, terminating his filming permit. Oliver is now left as a sort of community agitator to promote healthier selections at restaurants.
Oliver may well be a good chef, but he's not much of a policymaker. If there's one takeaway from the show, it's that it's truly a microcosm of our nation's public policy debate over food and obesity.
Oliver's approach to food reform was to swoop in from across the Atlantic, make healthier, albeit less appetizing, food and expect everyone to go along with it.
But any attempt to reform school lunch has to meet three criteria: Being tasty, healthy and inexpensive. It's easy for food to fit two of these categories. Having a food that fits all three is far more difficult. Oliver's system exemplifies this dilemma.
His school food in season one was probably healthier — meaning fewer calories. And in season two, he's already suggested that a fast-food burger operator swap out milkshakes for yogurt smoothies.
These changes are probably both healthy and tasty. But both fail the dollar test.
L.A. schools called the Huntington district that experienced Oliver's cafeteria menu makeover last year. Sources there told them that the Huntington schools were operating in the black before Oliver came, but were losing money after he showed up.
And in the first episode of season two, a drive-thru restaurateur told Oliver that the plan to add healthier options would result in food that was simply too expensive to be competitive.
Oliver's failure — which is likely to continue throughout the season — is due to his approach that doesn't offer new food that is affordable, tasty and healthy. (Not meeting this criteria will result in failure. After Chicago schools tried making lunches healthier this year, they saw a 5 percent drop in lunch sales as some kids found the new fare "nasty" and stopped eating it.)
Oliver's food philosophy is strikingly similar to the trendy beliefs espoused by food writers like Michael Pollan. If people only got rid of "processed" foods, if they only starting cooking themselves, if they only bought "organic" food from local sources, the narrative goes, they would be healthy.
But too often this simple vision succumbs to the law of unintended consequences. Oliver, for example, wants to banish flavored milk from schools. One survey found that students drink 37 percent less milk when flavored milk isn't an option — missing out on many nutrients. That's likely one reason administrators in a suburban Washington, D.C., school district recently allowed chocolate and strawberry milk back on the menu.
And considering the price premium, this isn't a feasible solution to fighting obesity. (Not to mention a multitude of scientific studies have found that organic food isn't healthier than conventional fare.) Ultimately, Oliver's attempts to tinker with food will likely be no more successful than South Los Angeles' zoning ban on new fast-food restaurants, or proposed taxes on soda as an obesity-fighting measure.
No amount of top-down regulations can create a desire to lose weight. Losing weight is a difficult process that takes a long time. People will never lose weight unless they decide they want to. Nagging from friends, family, spouses-or celebrities-is nowhere near a blueprint for success.