MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver wanted to lead a revolution but created a minor mutiny: A survey of the school in his new ABC reality show found children overwhelmingly preferred institutional fare to his freshly made offerings — so much so that many stopped buying lunch.
The survey, conducted by the West Virginia University Health Research Center about halfway through Oliver's two-month experiment at Central City Elementary School in Huntington, won't surprise anyone who's watched the first two episodes of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution."
Children preferred pizza, chicken nuggets and the other school entrees they were used to by a margin of 4-to-1, with nearly eight in 10 "very unhappy" about Oliver's alternatives. Many stopped buying the chef's lunches, which the researchers said may be healthier than what children get at home.
The survey found children also drank less milk after Oliver removed the sugary chocolate and strawberry varieties, offering only plain white skim or water. There was, however, a bright spot: More than six in 10 children said they'd tried new foods because of the program.
So no one is calling Oliver's experiment a failure. Yet.
"Three to four months is not enough time to see if this program is going to be successful," says principal Patrick O'Neal, who has embraced healthier eating, dines with the children and has shed 20 pounds since October.
"I think it's a spark to start a bigger fire," O'Neal says. "I don't see it as a failure, and I don't see it as a true success yet. It's going to take some time for it to ignite nationwide."
Central City is still serving Oliver's food, but O'Neal says he had no choice about the pink and brown milk: He put it back on the lunch line because the children need the nutrients.
WVU researchers Carole Harris and Drew Bradlyn agree with that decision and call the lower lunch-participation rates "very concerning."
‘Difficult switch to make’
In 2008, West Virginia became the first state to adopt school nutrition standards recommended by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, setting limits on sodium and fat, and guidelines for things like fiber.
Central City's regular meals were healthier than they may appear, and healthier than what many schools around the country are serving, Bradlyn says.
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"When they're serving french fries, they're baked. They're not actually fried," he says. "They're serving low-fat hot dogs. But they're not telling the kids that, or that the pizza was made with a whole wheat crust."
Bradlyn and Harris have been evaluating policies and programs to address childhood obesity in West Virginia for two years, working with the Department of Education and the Bureau for Public Health.
"No one knows for sure what's going to work to turn the corner," says Harris. "It's very important to make wise decisions, but it is a very difficult switch to make, and if the children don't like the food, they will convince their parents to give them other food."
Although parents try their best, many either don't think about or can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables, she says.
ABC chose Huntington after a 2008 Associated Press story used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to dub the five-county metropolitan area the nation's unhealthiest.
Cabell Huntington Hospital has since provided $80,000 to overhaul menus in Cabell County's 28 schools, and consultants from Connecticut-based Sustainable Food Systems have trained cooks in 12 schools to work from scratch. Rhonda McCoy, the district's food services director, says the program will reach high schools in April.
Some of Oliver's recipes — shepherd's pie and a beans and sausage dish, for example — had to be tossed because children refused to eat them. Even with those changes, however, McCoy says some schools have experienced similar drops in participation in the school lunch program.
"If we could have taken more of a gradual approach, it would have been more acceptable," she says. "You can't just take the pizza and hamburgers and chicken sandwiches away all at once" and expect children to accept it.
But Marion Nestle, who teaches nutritional studies and public health at New York University, says that kind of thinking will never work. Change depends on the commitment of adults, not children.
"I don't care whether they like pizza or not," says Nestle, who writes the blog Food Politics. "It's not up to them to decide. It's up to the adults to decide. It's one of the things about being a kid: Too bad for you."
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