The Problems with Jamie Oliver's Idea of a Food Revolution
Jamie Oliver claims that he doesn’t understand modern-day poverty in the U.K. Yeah. That sounds about right.
In a recent interview promoting Jamie Oliver’s new television series and book, Oliver said, "I'm not judgmental, but I've spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in [a previous series] Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive f****** TV.” Perhaps with one of his TV shows on it.
The celebrity chef, who has worked to make school lunches healthier in the U.K. and U.S., is out-of-touch with the harsh realities of life in poverty. This is a wealthy, White man blaming low-income individuals for their health and food predicaments, as if everyone has access to healthy food in their community, has the time to cook fresh meals, and has the electricity with which to cook the meals. He ignores the massive fast food advertisements communities of color see. In another interview, he complains about his young, British employees because they don't want to work 80 to 100 hours per week. So according to Oliver, poor people should work 80 hours per week and still have time to cook fresh meals. He wants to exploit cheap labor, but not accept any responsibility for their circumstances. Furthermore, he implies that poor people do not deserve to enjoy entertainment or the right to choose what they eat. Oliver’s comments are patronizing, presuming that low-income communities, which are often communities of color, need him to come in and tell them how to live.
His assumption is that poor communities cannot and should not fix their own problems.
Here in Albuquerque, New Mexico where I live, places like Los Jardines Institute provide locally grown, organic produce to marginalized low-income communities and local schools at an affordable price. The sale of the produce sustains the volunteer run organization. Beyond providing healthy fruits and vegetables, the organization also works on local environmental justice issues. Food justice work is making a difference throughout the U.S.
For the past year, Media Literacy Project has been working with the New York Department of Health to integrate media literacy education into their health programs. I’ve had the opportunity to train people who are living and working in all five boroughs (Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Bronx, and Staten Island). There is a clear connection between health, marketing, and geography. A study from Yale proved that Black children view 50% more fast food ads and see twice as many calories in those ads than White children. Latino preschoolers in the U.S. see 290 Spanish-language fast food TV commercials each year, a quarter of which are from McDonald’s.
This reality means that when health inequities are addressed in food justice programs, it is critical that the roles of marketing and advertising be included as structural factors in health outcomes. When our communities are provided limited food options in their neighborhoods, and are simultaneously bombarded with messages that tell them this substandard food is healthy, affordable, and delicious, it becomes increasingly difficult to shift behaviors. Media literacy is a crucial step in addressing food inequities.
Community organizations from New Mexico to New York have proved Oliver wrong and shared with me how they connect media literacy to food justice. Using MLP’s tools, they deconstruct media, explain how these messages impact culture, and provide alternative food options for the neighborhoods they are working in. Due to food justice work, farmer’s markets and food co-ops are increasing in areas that have historically been denied fresh fruits and vegetables.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how our communities are creating solutions to ensure that we have access to the food we need. One of the issues that I keep coming back to is the definition of a food desert. The USDA defines a food desert as, “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options.” This is most often measured by counting the grocery stores in a low-income neighborhood. The USDA provides funding priority to projects “that establish healthy retail outlets in defined food deserts.” Programs that have developed alternatives to retail outlets do not receive that funding.
As a media literacy educator, community organizer, and cultural critic, I find this problematic. Grocery stores have practiced red-lining and have refused to place themselves in poor communities of color deliberately. Grocery stores exist to sell us the processed, packaged foods that are marketed to us, such as Jamie Oliver’s packaged foods on which he made millions. In fact, grocery stores are arranged specifically to ensure that we purchase those packaged foods and receive payment to place certain packaged foods on shelves that will reach their target audience. For example, they place sugary cereals on lower shelves so that children will be more likely to see them, nag for them, and get their parents to purchase them.
Using a definition of a food desert that supports corporate entities (like grocery stores), instead of a definition that allows for existing community-based institutions (local farms and gardens), is a disservice.
I want a definition of a food desert that would allow for places like Los Jardines to be prioritized because not only are they providing healthy food for their community, the money made at Los Jardines stays in our community, too.
Simply put, grocery stores should not be positioned as saviors in our fight for food justice. Our communities need institutions that are better than grocery stores. We need places that are created solely to provide us with the healthy food we need, that teach us how to grow, prepare, and serve it, that sell it at affordable prices, and that recycle our money back into our community.
We need places that are more meaningful than grocery stores so that we can effectively drown out the food advertisements and media messages our communities are bombarded with every day. For me, I can’t separate the struggle for media justice from food justice. I see them as threads in the same tapestry of our movement. I’m thrilled that the New York Department of Health feels the same way and I look forward to continuing to build our relationship with them this coming year.