After well-publicized conflicts with the Los Angeles Unified School District, reality television star Jamie Oliver wrapped up the second season of his show, "Food Revolution," last week. Did the program have an impact --or even pose the right ideas -- about how to improve nutrition in L.A. schools?
Before Oliver set foot in California, Jennie Cook was already fighting to get flavored milk taken off the menu at LAUSD. In fact, she even staged a protest.
“We made it really fun," she recalls. "We filled empty jugs of milk with sugar. Which is the amount of sugar that a child will have in a school year if they have chocolate milk with every meal… which is scary if you actually pick it up.”
So when Cook heard that Jamie Oliver was coming to L.A., she was ecstatic.
“Absolutely thrilled to pieces. We were like 'Yay! Help, media… someone to lead us on!'”
Cook runs an advocacy group called Food for Lunch, and the empty jugs stunt, she says, was inspired by season one of "Food Revolution." She says Jamie Oliver gets an A for helping convince superintendent John Deasy to ban the sale of flavored milk at LAUSD schools. But she points out, Oliver took a decidedly antagonist approach to working with the the rest of LAUSD's top officials, even some who might have been sympathetic.
That's left some board members peeved at her for working with the controversial celebrity chef.
“Oh yeah. There is board member I am afraid to call right now who I had a good relationship with who was definitely on our side.”
Megan Hanson has a different gripe with "Food Revolution": season two.
“Some of us hoped they would feature more what was going on already in the neighborhoods, what was happening here,” she says.
She works with a non-profit called Root Down LA, a group that teaches kids how to make healthy food taste great. At a test kitchen in South LA, she shows high school students how to chop, grate, blanch, and fry veggies, and her cooking lessons have already made an impact on student’s lives.
Just ask high school sophomore Luis Perez. At one point his weight topped out at 283 pounds. But by getting active and working on his diet, Perez is now down to 180 pounds. He says he eats healthier in part because of Root Down LA.
“Thanks to Megan here. She helped me through it," he says.
Stories like Perez's, says Root Down LA's Megan Hanson, would be perfect for TV. But "Food Revolution" didn’t showcase much outside of it’s own efforts.
“His production team obviously had their own goals," Hanson admits. "But you know, I don’t hold that against Jamie Oliver the person. I really think his heart is in a good place and his head is in a good place.”
While they were taping, Oliver and his company met with a range of local food activists, including D’Artagnan Scorza. Scorza directs the non-profit group Social Justice Learning Institute. Part of his work is helping students run a community garden in Inglewood.
“We have lettuce... we have herbs." he says, showing off his inner-city crops. "You can see that big old bush right there is rosemary. The one right there with the purple on top is oregano."
Scorza says he started the garden after he and his students asked neighbors about their needs. They found that in low-income communities, like Inglewood, the problem was too many fast food restaurants and not enough grocery stores.
“The students said, 'lets create a community garden'. And we’re actually now into our third harvest.”
So when Scorza met with Oliver and his producers, he hoped they’d help him bring more fresh produce to the neighborhood.
“And they said, you know, we want organizations at the table who can help us work on this sugary milk issue. And we were saying look, this is not the issue that is the most important thing and the most pressing issue in our community.”
Scorza says that’s a problem when dealing with organizers and producers who aren’t living in communities like his.
“They don’t listen to the people who live here,” he says.
Like all of the activists interviewed for this story, Scorza would give the show a passing grade. He says it did bring attention to many of the problems facing school lunch programs, even if it couldn’t solve most of them.
But when it comes to the show's ratings there was definitely room for improvement. While the first season was a hit for ABC, it lost viewers early on its second time around. It was even pulled during May sweeps and replaced by a recap episode of "Dancing With the Stars."