America rejects Jamie’s Food Revolution

Jamie Oliver's healthy eating campaign fails to catch on in LA - but why?

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Nothing could have expressed the triumph of the recent Anglo-American love-in more neatly than the promotional image of perfectly paired modern mums Michelle Obama and Sam Cam perched companionably on a sofa at number 11.

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In the background is Sam’s gleaming new kitchen where, we imagine, the junior Camerons’ organic five-a-day menu is prepared. Michelle would approve, as healthy eating and the improved nutrition of the American child is one of her special projects.

Yet even the mega-popular First Lady is having a tough time selling her Let’s Move campaign against obesity to the ever-tubbier Americans. Branded a hypocrite (for eating ribs in a restaurant in Colorado) and savaged by her critics for seeking to limit school bake sales, who could hope to succeed where the glamorous Ms Obama, wife of the most powerful man on earth, is struggling?

A portly little bloke from Essex dressed as a tomato, that’s who. Or this is how the sugar-saturated residents of Los Angeles will have encountered Jamie Oliver for the first time, as he attempted to get his message out to the people on the mean streets. Regarded as a national hero – among the British middle classes at least – for championing healthy school meals in Kidbrooke and beyond, Jamie has taken his Food Revolution to Hollywood.

From a Brit perspective, the opening episodes have been riveting. Acknowledging that most things in the US look bigger, not just the locals, it’s hardly surprising that Jamie the TV cook scales up to Jamie the Movie when he engages with some of the challenges that face Michelle Obama.

Watch the small guy square up to the big corporations or, in Jamie’s case, the Los Angeles Unified School District – a panel of officials who are so petrified he will discover what the students of West Adams high school are guzzling in the canteen, they oust him from the campus. They even send in the cops to ensure he and his boxes of fresh veg remain off site.

There is something horribly comic about the glum-faced chef and his grocery van parked at the school gates while in the background, just out of focus, the ghostly, wobbling figures of students with type 2 diabetes hover forlornly, any chance of surviving into middle age effectively banned from their lives.

And it seems there’s nothing Jamie can do about it. He’s put on a dazzling array of stunts – filling a yellow school bus with the amount of sugar consumed by the children of LA in a week and dousing cows’ entrails in ammonia to demonstrate how mass-produced hamburgers are made. Here, he would have made the national press. In LA, he just about scrapes his way onto local radio and still the teenagers continue their suicidal stuffing.

Then, in early May, came the news that his series has been taken off air in the States – although it later emerged that ABC had just held back the four remaining programmes until June, when competition on other channels wasn’t so stiff.

The fact is, the very qualities that make Jamie’s Food Revolution such compelling TV over here – essentially a total clash of cultures – may well account for its failure to snare an audience share in the US. Talking to American friends, the reaction I get when I ask why their countrymen aren’t listening to Jamie is, “Why would they?”

Americans are genuinely convinced they do things best – and that includes their national cuisine, even if all it amounts to is a lethal concoction of fat, sugar and additives dressed up to look like an ice cream. They want it, breakfast, lunch and dinner – and preferably many times in-between.

Would Jamie have made more of an impact if he’d played the Americans at their own game and invested in some heavyweight advertising, fronted by beautiful people with bodies only really achievable through plastic surgery? Who would care about the truth? This is the land of the brand, where dreams sell, not statistics on heart disease.

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I, for one, will be cheering on Jamie as he continues his war against the forces of fatness, but in the meantime it has to be said that, for the junk food giants of America, it looks like “God is on the side of the big battalions.”