Waking Up America, One Fritter at a Time

April 5, 2010


You say tomato, I say tomahto. But at least we know what the vegetable is, which is more than can be said for this elementary school class in Huntington, W.V.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has declared war. His battleground: the school cafeteria. His enemy: chicken nuggets, potato pearls, pizza for breakfast and the other processed foods currently being served to our school children on a daily basis (and which contribute to the obesity epidemic in the U.S.).

He’s bringing the issue to light in a simple yet compelling way in Oliver’s “Food Revolution,” a reality TV series that recently began airing on ABC. Oliver and a film crew headed to Huntington — which, based on statistical data, has been identified as one of the unhealthiest places to live in the U.S. He set out to force people to talk about the issue, to educate residents on how easy it is to prepare wholesome foods and to prove that these types of foods are accessible and enjoyable. Personal opinion of the show aside, it’s doing what it set out to do: force people to talk and get educated.

Similarly, a provision included within recently passed health care legislation also is forcing the issue. Restaurant chains with 20 or more locations will be required to post nutritional data for their menu items (regulations are already in place in New York City and California). What this means for you: you’ll see right in front of you that the lemon pound cake at Starbucks you love so much has a whopping 490 calories, 47 grams of sugar and 23 grams of fat (accounting for 65% of your recommended saturated fat intake for the day). Will it stop you from purchasing it? Perhaps not, but you’ll at least be able to make an educated decision. Maybe you’ll eat the entire thing and go for an extra mile on the treadmill; maybe you’ll eat half; or maybe you’ll decide that it’s not worth it and move on. Regardless, you at least now have the info and can make the choice that’s best for you.

Opponents argue that people need to be responsible for themselves and that the government has no right to place requirements on businesses. But the government isn’t telling people what to eat. It’s allowing people to make educated decisions about what they’re putting in their bodies. Here’s what else they have to say:

  • The CDC estimates that 17% of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese.
  • About 34% of U.S. adults– almost 73 million people– were obese (roughly 30 or more pounds over a healthy weight) in 2008, up from 31% in 1999.
  • One study estimates that the total annual cost to California alone for overweight, obesity and physical inactivity was $41.2 billion (includes overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, health care costs, lost productivity costs). Consider that California state’s budget deficit is reported somewhere in the $7-14 billion range: it’s not a far stretch to say proactively working on obesity-related issues could help the budget long-term.

The general health and wellness of the American people is certainly an issue the government needs to be concerned with – it’s costing us our quality of life.

Sure, it’s going to be a bit inconvenient and potentially expensive for restaurants to implement. But it will force companies to think about what they’re putting on their menu and whether people will continue to purchase it if they know the truth. Let’s face it, folks. People are not going to stop eating — food is a necessity. There is a great opportunity for restaurants and brands that proactively refresh their menus, offer a variety of options for consumers to choose from and educate their consumers on their products. As more and more people pay attention they’ll be looking for brands that are leading the way, and the brands only stand to benefit. 

Credit: ABC

It’s too soon to tell what impact nutrition labeling or Oliver’s influence in Huntington will have long term, but there is already good news: remember the students who couldn’t name their vegetables? Thanks to their school teacher they now can. She took it upon herself to create a lesson plan and educate the students. Doesn’t mean the kids will eat their broccoli, but at least they know what it is.