Naked revolution

Even though he might rightly be regarded as one of the originators of food pornography, Jamie Oliver has never been about overindulgence.

First Published in

Love him or hate him, Jamie Oliver is probably the most famous and prolific of the band of celebrity chefs to emerge from the United Kingdom in the 1990s. His rise from celebrity chef to international TV personality has been short but gruelling.

He has published 15 cookbooks, launched 30 restaurants, appeared in more than 19 of his own TV series, endorsed cookware and pans for Tefal, been the face of Sainsbury’s, and launched his own collection, Jme. He is also a family man, married to Jools, with four young children. At 36 years old, he shows no sign of slowing down with a new restaurant chain, Union Jacks, planned for November.

While his critics have accused him of spreading himself too thin, one thing can’t be ignored – the man has passion. That passion is not only channelled into the profit-making machine that is but more importantly into fighting an unglamorous war on obesity.

What started out in late 1990s with the “Naked Chef” encouraging people to introduce the fun back into cooking by using fresh seasonal ingredients, has expanded into a tour de force that includes the School Dinners/Feed Me Better campaign, Fifteen Foundation, Ministry of Food and, his latest and most ambitious project, the Food Revolution

Oliver’s activist roots emerged in 2002 with the launch of Fifteen. The project selected 15 young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds, with criminal records or a history of drug abuse, to be trained in the restaurant business. Not without its controversy and challenges, the concept proved so successful it was established in four locations – London (2002), Amsterdam (2004), Cornwall and Melbourne (both 2006). Fifteen now forms part of the Jamie Oliver Foundation and has helped 220 young people graduate from its ranks.

In 2003 Oliver focused his attentions on improving the standard of Britain’s school meals in the Feed Me Better campaign that formed the basis of the School Dinners TV documentary series. Oliver took responsibility for running the kitchen in Kidbrooke School, Greenwich, for a year where he set about replacing menu items like the fat-laden Turkey Twizzlers with fresh vegetables, pasta and a diet rich in nutrients. Oliver’s approach was not always welcomed – parents of one school passed hamburgers and chips through school fences in protest. However, he was not deterred and studies confirmed that children’s performance had improved thanks to the new menus. The public campaign led to the British government committing £280 million to improving school dinners and Oliver was also named “Most Inspiring Political Figure of 2005” by Channel 4 News.

The Ministry of Food campaign was launched in 2008. Initially set in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, it aimed to teach the local community to learn how to cook fresh food and establish healthy eating as part of daily life. The project took its name from the organisation that was set up during World War II to show Britons how to make the most of wartime food shortages. Oliver states in his manifesto: “Sixty years later, we are again at risk of malnutrition but of a different sort, because we no longer have the knowledge of how to cook and use ingredients.” The frightening evidence is clear when Oliver asks primary school children to identify vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes, and they can only hazard a guess.

Not content with saving his fellow countrymen, Oliver travelled to the United States with the launch of his TV series Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Understanding that the USA was facing a massive crisis, he wanted to get people cooking from scratch, eating fresh fruit and vegetables, and off a diet of processed foods. He started his crusade in Huntington, West Virginia, which Associated Press had named “America’s fattest city” in 2008. Far from welcoming the chef, much of the town rejected his healthy eating ideology, leaving Oliver frustrated and in tears.

In 2010 Oliver’s campaign was recognised with the TED Prize. The $100 000 prize is awarded to an exceptional individual who presents their “One Wish to Change the World” during the TED Conference. Oliver’s presentation was an impassioned plea to “Teach every child about food”, exposing the travesty of the American food landscape and highlighting the growing obesity crisis. He shone the spotlight on 16-year-olds with six years to live, giant-sized coffins to bury the obese and wheelbarrows full of sugar from school-sponsored flavoured milk. The video has had more than 1.5 million hits since it aired in February 2010.

Nonetheless, obesity is not an issue that attracts public empathy in the same way that HIV/Aids, TB or cancer does. It is a topic that seems to invoke shame for the inherent laziness and gluttony it represents. Obesity and the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) also point at some of modern society’s worst innovations – fats disguised as food, chemicals masquerading as flavours, and gadgets and pills promising to help you lose weight without leaving your seat. Oliver is calling for a food revolution to help reverse the tide.

His advocacy is twofold: Get individuals and communities to start changing their ways, in addition to campaigning for change on a governmental level. In September 2011, Oliver penned an open letter to Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, on the eve of the UN Summit to discuss NCDs. The letter was a call to action, asking for people all across the world to join the Food Revolution, help get countries and global leaders to work together, and improve education and legislation, in order to reduce the number of deaths from NCDs and obesity-related diseases.

Thirty-four heads of state attended the summit and unanimously adopted the Political Declaration on NCDs. The NCD Alliance agreed that “the global burden and threat of NCDs constitutes one of the major challenges for development in the 21st century, which undermines social and economic development throughout the world”. The approved political declaration calls for an agenda by the end of 2012 to take action on reducing and preventing NCDs. The World Health Organisation has been tasked with monitoring and preparing the recommended goals.

Whether you see Jamie Oliver as a passionate foodie, working-class hero or self-promoting celebrity chef, the truth is that obesity and NCDs are a serious global issue. This is a war that needs to be waged on all fronts – in the home, on the high street and at government level. Jamie Oliver, armed with a wooden spoon and passion, is ready for the battle.

Jo Parsons is a freelance project manager with a background in social history, food, wine and publishing. She loves tomatoes, jazz and living in Vredehoek. Twitter: @robertandjolove.