Jamie Oliver has vowed to keep his healthy food fight boiling in Los Angeles after his recipe for success curdled with schools chiefs.
“I’ve had a tough time here,” the 35-year-old celebrity chef admitted wearily in an interview. “Nothing that was planned has come off (since he arrived in LA last autumn to shoot his second US TV series).”
The six-episode show was to revolve around one of Oliver’s favourite causes - making school lunches healthier – but was skewered when the Los Angeles Unified School District objected to his key ingredient – TV cameras.
“We’re interested in Jamie Oliver the food activist, not Jamie the reality TV star,” said Robert Alaniz, the schools district spokesman.
“We’ve invited him to work with our menu committee, but there’s too much drama, too much conflict with a reality show.”
The Naked Chef’s concept is simple: obesity kills and cooking meals from scratch using fresh ingredients will save lives – a message he wields with zeal in home kitchens, classrooms and corporate boardrooms.
School lunches are a particular passion for the father of four, who revamped cafeteria cuisine in Britain then turned his sights to Huntington, West Virginia, for his first US-based TV show after an Associated Press poll labelled the area America’s unhealthiest.
Oliver decided to set his second US series in Los Angeles, home to the nation’s second-largest school district, which enrols 650,000 mostly low-income children and serves “an amazing” 1.2 million meals a day.
But the district said no, partly because of. a previous sour experience with reality show School Pride, which used re-enactments of made-up incidents and left the authority with a big bill, Mr Alaniz said.
However, West Adams Preparatory High School in Central Los Angeles, which is run by non-profit MLA Partner Schools under contract with LAUSD, allowed Oliver on campus as a curriculum addition. But after two weeks of filming, the district found out he was there and stopped the show.
“We aren’t happy about it,” said Mike McGalliard, president of MLA Partner Schools. “I told the district, ’You guys are making a big fuss over nothing. It’s not an expose. It’s an incredible programme.”
Nearly half of West Adams students are obese, he says, and all qualify for free lunches which feature items such as chicken nuggets and corn dogs, with sides like raw broccoli.
Oliver planted a community garden, mentored culinary arts students, lectured about portion size, caloric intake and diet-related disease, and set up a nearby community kitchen to give free classes in cooking fare such as roast chicken.
“They think Jamie is the threat. The threat is diabetes and high cholesterol,” said pupil Caleb Villanueva, 17.
Sophia Ruvalcaba, 17, who has diabetes, as do her mother and sister, said Oliver came to their home for dinner. “He was just trying to make a healthier meal for us,” she said.
Oliver said he was not trying to cast the school district in a bad light. Calling his style “documentary with stunts”, he filled a school bus with 57 tons of white sand to represent the amount of sugar the children consumed every week in flavoured milk.
But those kind of made-for-TV stunts are exactly what LAUSD finds unappetising.
Mr Alaniz said the district remained willing to work with Oliver, but off camera. It has suggested that he lend his expertise by coming up with three weeks of meal plans, adhering to the district’s food budget of 77c a meal and state standards.
Mr Alaniz said the district had been on its own culinary crusade for years, banning junk foods, fizzy drinks, additives, dyes and certain fats and oils. Next year, chicken nuggets and pizza will be taken off the cafeteria line-up, replaced by student-taste-tested dishes such as California sushi roll, chicken tandoori, and Israeli couscous and veggie salad.
Oliver now has a team of chefs working on the district’s menus and hopes the new superintendent due to take over next month will be more flexible. In the meantime, he is setting up four more community kitchens around LA, funded by the American Heart Association at a cost of about €129,000 each, to offer free cooking classes and will be taking his mobile kitchen set up in an 18-wheel vehicle around Southern California.
“I want the American public to expect more,” he said. “It might take a couple of years to get there, but I’m deeply passionate that when everyone comes together, stuff changes.”