by Dan Behrend, staff editor Does avoiding potential damage to a school district’s public image outweigh the benefits of bringing national attention to unhealthy school lunches and high rates of childhood obesity? The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) seemed to respond in the affirmative when it recently rejected an offer to become the new focus of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.**
According to the Los Angeles Times, LAUSD offered several valid reasons for declining Oliver’s offer, including the time demands of participation and the dire budgetary constraints the district faces. Instead of partnering with Oliver, the district said it will continue with its current nutrition strategy. Avoiding potential embarrassment, however, seems an equally probable reason for the district’s decision.
Oliver’s show aims to motivate the school’s community and the show’s viewers to support school lunch reform efforts, take action to improve the quality of school lunches, and support positive changes in eating habits. In part, Oliver’s strategy relies on the outrage generated by exposing the unhealthy lunches provided in actual school cafeterias and the institutional barriers to improving the nutritional quality of the food served to students. That outrage is great for mobilizing supporters but is probably dreaded by the school administrators responsible for managing the underfunded lunch program at the focus of Food Revolution.
LAUSD claims their decision is in the best interest of its students, but that position is debatable. The district expressed legitimate concerns about how the show would place demands on limited district resources. It remains somewhat unclear, however, how students would be hurt by the district being featured in Food Revolution. The show could bring awareness to areas in need of improvement at the district level, foster new community partnerships and support, and put pressure on state and national leaders to allocate adequate funding.
The refusal to appear on Food Revolution may represent a concession on the part of LAUSD. While many stakeholders agree drastic changes are required to improve school lunch programs, a large district facing a budget crisis lacks the ability to take action. Airing the district’s problems on national television without providing the district the means to address those problems, therefore, leaves little incentive to be an anecdote in the debate over school lunch reform.
* Jean-Paul Sartre
** Jamie Oliver is a chef who has used reality television as a means of combating obesity in the United States and Britain. The Emmy-winning first season of his Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution aired in 2010 ad focused on Huntington, WV. Oliver also received a TED Prize earlier this year for his advocacy efforts.