View from here - Knives out for Jamie's new show

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
Hamish W Lace reports on the naked criticism the British celebrity chef is facing as he takes US school dinners to task

The decision by a Brit to come over and lecture the United States on how to feed its school pupils was never going to be universally well-received.

When celebrity chef Jamie Oliver tried to explain his mission on a West Virginia radio station, the breakfast show presenter sneered: "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day. Who made you king?"

This was among many dispiriting moments for Oliver in the first episode of his new series Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, broadcast by the channel ABC in the US last week.

In it he attempted to revamp the menu at an elementary school in Huntington, West Virginia, the city rated as the unhealthiest in the nation by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Just as happened when he started his crusade in the UK, Oliver was horrified by the food on offer to pupils - in this case "breakfast pizza" instead of Turkey Twizzlers. He also faced scepticism from pupils and catering staff.

When he suggested that the pupils should have knives and forks to eat with - rather than just spoons - caterer Alice Gue could not believe children in Britain would be allowed them: "Are you telling me, honestly, that your kindergarteners use knives and forks?"

The experience, along with clashes with local residents about some of his comments on Americans, left the Naked Chef tearful.

"You can imagine how eagerly the people of West Virginia respond to a foreigner with meticulously rumpled hair and a funny accent telling them to hand over the fries," noted the Washington Post - adding that the programme appeared to have glossed over the politicisation of food in the US, "the high cost of eating right, the class issues over portion size, the constant character judgments strewn between a fine meal and the drive-thru".

But Oliver's new campaign has won him admirers, in the press and in the local community.

Some were so horrified by the quality of meals at the school, Central City Elementary, that they have written letters and posted insulting comments about its principal, Patrick O'Neal, on the internet.

He said he was shocked to read himself described as a "boot-licking education leader", with a "criminal" lack of knowledge about nutrition.

Mr O'Neal told West Virginia newspaper, The Charleston Daily Mail: "I'm just kind of upset. I wasn't expecting this."

He added that he hoped viewers would reserve judgment about the school until they had watched the rest of the series, which runs for another five weeks.

Some remain sceptical whether Oliver's new series will have the same impact as the UK version - which led then prime minister Tony Blair to pledge millions more for school dinners. But given that US president's wife, Michelle Obama, has made improving children's diets a personal mission, it will be no surprise if the chef makes friends in high places.

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