Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef who is beating the drums for a school lunch revolution, received a warm reception this weekend from hundreds of the people who make and serve food to children every day. It’s the Los Angeles Unified School District that isn’t so welcoming.
“I’m going to be honest. I’m actually petrified,” Oliver said as he started his keynote address Saturday at the annual meeting of the California School Nutrition Assn. at the Pasadena Convention Center.
Perhaps he feared the “lunch ladies” might not be happy to hear from the man who clashed with their colleagues in Huntington, W.Va., last year on “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” But he was applauded several times.
Oliver, who moved to Los Angeles with his family earlier this month, has so far failed to get L.A. Unified to reverse its decision not to let him — and his reality television show — into the country’s second-largest school system.
He pleaded with the audience to help him find a school or a district. And he got some offers, though Oliver said 75 districts — or their lawyers — have refused his overtures.
It wasn’t a given that Oliver would be well-received Saturday, and several people at the conference said they would not like to be part of a series that could be as contentious as it was in West Virginia. Others said he ought to acknowledge the changes that already have occurred in schools, such as the elimination of sodas and trans-fats and the addition of more fresh fruits and vegetables.
“He has all these great ideas, but we are struggling now. Where is the money?” asked Susan Tilsley, who supervises nutrition at 15 elementary schools in the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County.
David Binkle, L.A. Unified’s deputy food service director, suggested before the speech that Oliver might do well to show some humility.
Oliver, with his perfectly scruffy hair, casual jeans and plaid shirt, had gotten the message.
“I come here humbly today,” he said, adding that he’d learned that California “was leading the way” in school nutrition reform.
But he said, “I also believe that many of you know you could do better if you only had half a second” or more money.
The second season of ABC’s Emmy-winning “Food Revolution,” scheduled for spring, will go on with or without the L.A. school district, Oliver said last week. He has said he wants to find families who will let him into their kitchens to see how they cook and eat.
It is noteworthy, he told his audience of mostly women, that a show about school food could be a hit.
Oliver has the platform to help bring attention to the “work we are all trying to do,” said Marilyn Briggs, co-director of the UC Davis Center for Nutrition in Schools and a former director of nutrition services in the state Department of Education.
In Huntington, W.Va., officials say the district was already committed to change when “Food Revolution” came to town. Most meals now are cooked from scratch, and Oliver noted that efforts are continuing there — even for some of the workers with whom he clashed, including Alice Gue, a school cook there.
“Alice, who hated my guts, now has a promotion,” he said, to appreciative laughter.
Rick Cota, director of nutrition services for the Claremont Unified School District, told Oliver that he’d like to open his kitchens to him.
“Claremont is a community that is all over good health and sustainable practices, so we’re on the same page with the goals for our program,” Cota said later.