Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Food and Other Revolutions

It's amazing what inspires me to write. I tweeted a lot about the death of Osama bin Laden, and we went to the World Trade Center site at 1 am. We ended up watching the sun rise and taking May 2 as a personal day. By the time I felt like really writing, everyone had already said everything and a little bit more. They're still talking. I reserve the right to blog about something else.

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution TV show, on ABC, has been moved from the all-important sweeps month of May to the rerun season of June, where it will probably do much better. (It had been scheduled opposite Glee and NCIS, which strikes me as a kiss of death.) Good riddance, I thought. I watched much of the first installment, where Oliver goes to Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington ranked high in all the things a city never wants to: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. So TV chef Jamie Oliver came in to "save" them.

The show absolutely disgusted me. It was turned into a stereotype-ridden fish-out-of-water drama. Poor widdle Jamie Oliver cried a lot--when kids threw away fresh homemade bread, when he faced opposition, when grown women in the school cafeteria took offense to his sexist pet names. The West Virginians were made to look like the most benighted hillbillies. Oliver literally screamed at poor families. Certainly there was a problem--children in the school couldn't even use a knife and fork properly, because they'd been fed chicken nuggets, pizza, and hamburgers so much. But I found it the most obnoxious kind of scripted "reality."

I don't like to watch people be humiliated on TV for my entertainment, unless they play for the Philadelphia Flyers or wrecked Tony Stewart last week. I don't enjoy watching real strangers cry, hug, and share their pitiful stories for the unblinking eye of a camera and the hands of an editor who will use them for maximum drama. It was painful viewing for me. I stopped. I was appalled at Oliver, at producer Ryan Seacrest, and at ABC. My hackles rose up every time someone mentioned that they liked or supported these efforts.

Also, honestly, my childhood wasn't all that far from Huntington, West Virginia. I could quite easily imagine "Miss Linda" from the lunchroom getting every bit as defensive as their lunch ladies. My brother and I drank chocolate milk because the chocolate made it less torturous to drink that thick, creamy crap with tomato sauce on a hot Florida day. If someone had yelled at us about all the sugar in our flavored milk and taken it away, leaving only plain milk, we would have yelled back and drank water with lunch. My mother was overly protective of us because our father died when I was 7, and she didn't want to lose us, too. We didn't live in a bad neighborhood, but she worried about us playing outside while she was at work. Our mother taught us how to cook and prepare food, but many of our neighbors didn't have time to teach their children knife-handling skills. It seemed like Oliver never stopped to ask anybody about things like that. He told people what they needed, and told, and told some more.

So. I gleefully read about the hit this awful, if well-intentioned, show took in its second season. I wrote this admittedly sarcastic comment amid outraged Food Revolution fans:

You mean poor single mothers don't like being screamed at by some posh stranger who keeps what they make in a year in his wallet for pocket change? You mean schools have these things called food budgets? You mean kids like sweet things, think in the short term, and get resentful when you take away all the foods they like at once? WEIRD!

I got some risible replies. These are all unedited, not just the attempt to mock me as a moron:

"yer funnie ! we shood git toogathur an klub sum seels!"

"Anyone can eat healthy for the same price it costs to eat at McDonald's. Being smart about food is what he tries to help people to do. Don't like a "stranger" telling you...I'm sure many local people who take the time to learn about how to keep their bodies moving and choose an apple over a bag of chips can tell you. He's "posh" because he has an accent and used proper grammar? Really?"

"You mean parents should CARE about what they're feeding their children! How DARE they! Especially since the state is PAYING( from MY taxes) to feed the children YOU brought into this world? How about using a condom and saving us ALL the trouble of paying for YOUR children , since you don't give a good damn about them anyway!"

Oh. Wow. How could I possibly have assumed that any classism was at work here, or that it wasn't the people who actually needed help who were watching this show? (For one thing, my grammar was at least as proper as that of other commenters.)

It would probably surprise these people to know that I wasn't typing with one hand while eating a bag of chips with the other as 20 fat, pre-diabetic toddlers ran around the house. I don't have children, just a wife and cats. I support urban farmers, including the many in Brooklyn. I do much of my food shopping at farmers' markets. I got a wake-up call when I was diagnosed with high cholesterol, and that combined with my chicken/egg allergy made me re-evaluate my own diet. I don't wish to die of a heart attack at 38 like my father. My wife, who teaches martial arts in a gym, gently keeps me in line. We started playing street hockey on spring weekends because it seemed so wrong to her to watch other people exercise while we sat on the couch. A boy who we recruited to play goalie now plays goalie for his high school's team.

I do think there's such a thing as Big Agribusiness, and I don't think it's good for us to eat foods with all the nutrition processed out. I agree with Alice Waters, who tweeted on April 29th that "The true elitism is a food system controlled by a handful of corporations." I think children should know what a cherry tastes like before they take their first sip of Cherry Coke. I don't think mega-food corporations are friends, only skilled at friendly rhetoric in commercials. They are the worst kind of backstabbers. This op-ed spoke to me.

I've learned much from my brother, one of many new organic farmers in their twenties and thirties. He double-majored in business administration and agriculture so that he could live his lifelong dream, one that people laughed at. "I make good food. I feed people. It's the best job in the world," he says.

I would like to see a reality show based on passionate young farmers like my brother. Or, perhaps, a sitcom based on them, Green Acres for a new generation. I'd like to see the cameras turn to the urban farmers in Brooklyn and elsewhere, with vines wrapped around their homes and apiaries on their roofs. To homegrown (ha!) heroes like Majora Carter, who's working to green the South Bronx. To the Catherine Ferguson Academy, an award-winning school in Michigan which taught pregnant and mothering girls how to farm. But, you know, that was closed down by an awful new Michigan state law.

Let's not promote them. Let's not showcase the real, wonderful American food revolutions going on all over this country. No, instead, let's show a caricatured version of "foodies" and aggrandize a TV chef who's already been paid a ton of money. Let's have yelling and crying and "lunch ladies" made to look incredibly stupid for TV reviewers who can't even be bothered to get their names right. (I can't blame the staffs of Los Angeles school cafeterias for not wanting Jamie Oliver and ABC's cameras around.) Let's give smug people who think they're doing good by eating organic multigrain tortilla chips instead of Lay's on their couch a good laugh at poor peoples' expense. Food Revolution fans complained that ABC had caved to Big Agribusiness, never mind that ABC is itself a large corporation. If people find a show unpleasant to watch compared to other choices, the network will do something about that show--duh?

I don't even think Oliver's all bad. His intentions are good. It's good to give back once one has earned money. He's right about processed food. I was pleased to read about one of his projects for Los Angeles--rolling kitchen on a bus where urban teenagers, among others, can learn to cook simple, healthful food. His foundation does behind-the-scenes work in two countries. In short, I'd like to see his work go on, with respect for the people being helped and without a camera and editors.

So, again, I'm rhetorically threading the needle. Or maybe my thoughts are all just a jumbled mess and I entertain way too many opinions. Whatever.

In typing all this, I almost said the attitudes displayed in Oliver's show are "all stick, no carrot." But there are two things wrong with that neat little metaphor. Firstly, human beings, including poor, unhealthy, uneducated humans, deserve to be listened to and given real help that acknowledges the realities of their lives, not trained like mules. Secondly, the nice, healthful, unprocessed carrot can actually be transformed into yet another stick for people who've been hit enough already.

We can do better than that. A good start would be to learn how to market at least as well as Big Agribusiness. They listen, they learn, and they know what to say to promote their products. Meanwhile, reformers often come off tin-eared, arrogant, and, well, douchey. It's true that douchiness isn't fatal and diabetes is. However, douchiness does cause people to tune out a message and make it incredibly easy for the real elites to paint reformers as elitists.


Dr. Deb said...

Was watching Nascar on channel 5 the other night and thought of you! It was kinda fun to watch.

BostonPobble said...

I don't want to be yelled at by anyone who comes into my world and starts fixing me ~ even when I can objectively recognize that they have a point. Why do we think it's appropriate to do that to other people for our evening entertainment? *sigh*

The assumptions made about you based on your comment were interesting, too. Because, again, it's easier to make assumptions that confirm what we want to believe than actually learn something that might rattle our reality.