By John Bell

When Jamie Oliver stepped into Huntington, West Virginia in 2009, he expected to stir something up with the locals. He hoped it would be healthy food. Huntington was listed as the unhealthiest town in America by the Centers for Disease Control in 2008, and Jamie decided to launch his American campaign there.

The only thing stirred up was controversy.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution began as an inroad to America’s school lunchrooms, a television show designed to inspire changes in nationwide eating habits. Oliver’s starting point was to change the way the nation’s children eat, and what better place to do that than where people have the most deleterious lifestyles, in a town like Huntington? The school’s lunch menu consists mainly of processed, pre-packaged foods like frozen pizzas and french fries. The primary beverage choice is flavored milk, which contains the same sugar content as a can of soda. So it would seem a shame that when Oliver announced he was coming to Huntington to change things, the locals took exception to his arrival. “We’re not going to eat lettuce all day,” chimed the local radio station host, who Jamie visited to try to quell concerns from the community that he was out to make Huntington look like a dark, evil place that killed its own with sodium and fat.

As it turns out, Huntington, West Virginia—while the worst of the worst, by the numbers—is only representative of our nation as a whole. School lunches are widely credited by nutritionists as a major contributor to the child obesity problem this country faces, and though changes have been successfully made in some affluent areas, the problem still exists far too broadly in most of the nation. It’s not a new problem; a study at the University of Chicago as far back as 2005 credits an increase in childhood obesity to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and just this year, a study by the University of Michigan found that eating school lunches made a student 29% more likely to be obese than a student who brown-bagged their lunch. Contrast that with the risk factor of spending two or more hours a day sitting in front of a television or a game console only increasing the likelihood of obesity by a still-large 19%, and you can clearly see the problem.

The USDA saw the problem, too. Earlier this year, they changed the requirements for the NSLP, a drastic modification that was highly praised by nutritionists. The new program called for a reduction in starchy vegetables, an increase of fruits and exposure to other greens and vegetables, as well as a ban on trans-fatty acids (commonly called trans-fats), which raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk for coronary disease. It would also change the requirement of how much tomato paste on pizza constitutes a serving of vegetables, resulting in the now-famous “pizza is a vegetable” headline (which isn’t in any official language anywhere). They even put in place a rule that half of all grains must be whole grains. It was the first substantial change to the school lunch program in fifteen years; so drastic, in fact, that it threatened the profit margins of a very powerful lobby: the frozen food industry, purveyors of such foods as french fries, frozen beef patties, and—you guessed it—pizza.

The frozen food industry faced a small problem, though: the USDA changes to the NSLP did not require congressional approval, so it would seem there was little they could do to block the new recommendations. Congress, however, found a way to around this pesky little rule; they simply modified an agricultural appropriations bill to contain some language forcing the USDA to not make the changes. It would appear that when there’s a bill, there’s a way.

Despite President Obama’s endorsement of the USDA’s changes, he signed the appropriations bill that blocked the USDA from implementing the changes that were recommended. It’s now law.

Oliver had some success in turning the locals around in Huntington. He was able to bring parents and school teachers and officials together to endorse Huntington’s Kitchen, a place where residents could come to learn how to cook simple, healthy meals. He also encouraged change in the school’s lunch program, which was embraced after he showed it could work without massive amounts of money. Oliver’s next foray, demonstrated in the second season of Food Revolution, was the Los Angeles Unified School District. If Oliver thought Huntington offered some resistance to his message, well, as the locals might say, “he ain’t seen nothin’ yet”. Being a responsible messenger, he sought permission from the school district to change some of the sources of food offered in their high school lunchrooms. He was shot down immediately by the board, and when he reappeared before them shortly after to once again plead his case, he was told by the board head, Ramon Cortiz, “I made the decision. You will not be in our schools.”

Oliver was devastated when they pulled the permits for the show to be filmed in any school and forbade him from even speaking to the students about their lunches. In fact, he would have given up had they not found a loophole in one of LA’s charter schools, West Adams Preparatory School. Even though there were setbacks there as well, he was able to teach a class on nutrition (during which many students couldn’t identify simple fruits and vegetables), and with a small band of students who wanted to help his revolution, began making lunches—within the budget allotted by the district—that was both more nutritious than what was offered by the regular menu, and, more importantly, that the kids liked.

The ultimate result of the second (and final) season of Food Revolution was that West Adams, the charter school Oliver was allowed into, made sweeping changes to its lunch menu, and began an organic garden for ingredients on campus that the kids maintain. After being shamed on national television, the LAUSD has since made positive changes across the districts it serves to its lunch program, though they’re hesitant to give credit to Oliver, saying that the changes that came about were already in the works. (One wonders why, if that’s true, they were unwilling to demonstrate that to the cameras and why the school administration issued statements that school lunches in LAUSD schools are just fine the way they are.)

While Oliver’s efforts have made a difference in LA and in one town on the east coast, have they made a more widespread difference in the country, as they did when he brought the fight in the UK?

It was back in January when the USDA first released its new recommendations. The frozen food industry was not pleased, and sent its lobbyists scurrying to find ways around the updated recommendations, even though schools aren’t officially required to adhere to the USDA’s guidelines; they must do so only if they want to reap the financial benefits of compliance. After nearly a year of lobbying, Congress declared that many of the new recommendations would not be implemented.

In fact, it was Congress who, in 2004, brought the USDA under orders to conform to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a program developed by the Department of Health and Human Services, and the 2011 update to the National School Lunch Program that the USDA put out was the result of those orders. Congressional “customers”—industry lobbyists—put the brakes on that train. There’s an element of irony in the current situation.

Some would even argue that there’s too many cooks in the kitchen. Why are multiple bureaucracies managing dietary guidelines? And why is Congress allowed to muddy the waters at will about who is allowed to make recommendations? These are questions that parents and some administrators are asking themselves. In the meantime, many schools are serving high-sodium, sugar-laden lunch menus, despite the belief of 78% of Americans that schools aren’t held to a high enough nutritional standard for lunches.

JoAnne Hammermaster, head of Real Food For Kids, a group in Fairfax, Virginia, that wants to change the food culture in the school district there, expressed her outrage at Congress’s decision. “They can’t see the forest for the trees,” she said. “There is so much focus on simply meeting deficient ‘guidelines’ and current budgets that no one is considering the long-term effects – and the simple facts. Obesity and related illnesses such as diabetes, as projected by the CDC, will cost far more in the long run than increasing the quality and variety of foods in school lunch programs.”

She isn’t wrong. While the USDA recommendations would add a few cents to the price of each student’s lunch, obesity and diabetes are expensive conditions to treat (obesity alone costs our nation $10,000,000 per hour in health care and other treatment costs), which would add additional expenses to low-income family budgets already burdened by a weak economy. Beyond that, says Hammermaster, it sets a poor precedent for lifelong eating habits. “What are we teaching our kids?” she asked. “How can we teach our children to eat responsibly when our government makes the irresponsible statement that pizza is a vegetable? This is just unacceptable and unfortunately our children will pay the price.”

It’s not all bad news though. In Glen Cove, NY, the Fruit and Veggie Infusion Project was started as parents and school officials at the Katherine A. Deasy Elementary School were inspired to offer healthier food to their students. The project involves the students cultivating a garden at school, as well as classes on how to prepare the foods they grow. The school also now has a salad bar, and the kids also made water beverages infused with produce from the garden as an alternative to the sugary drinks that are usually part of their diet.

Deasy isn’t the only school where change is occurring. As mentioned, the LAUSD has made big strides in its own school lunch program, and in other schools, such as Danville High School in Danville, Illinois, the students are actually pressing their administrators for healthier changes to the school lunch tray. And though many of the recommendations in the USDA report were shot down, such as limiting starchy foods, a fairly good number of the changes were left in, like limits on trans-fats, sodium and overall calories, and there are now limits on what kinds of milk can be served. The overall requirements of fruit and vegetables were even doubled.

So is there hope? After Oliver’s UK run at the school food problem, sweeping changes were made. This year, his is a household name; his new cookbook, Jamie Oliver’s Meals in Minutes, which is aimed at proving that it’s possible to cook healthy meals in a short time on a budget, is the second best-selling book in the UK ever. With schools all over the country bowing to parent pressure to go beyond the USDA recommendations, it looks like things could change for the better. Only time will tell.