Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Urbanism and the Food Revolution

Jamie Oliver, the star chef from Great Britain, declared war on processed foods in schools in his home country and achieved fantastic results. He then decided to fire a shot over the pond and see if his success was transferable to the most obese country in the world, the United States. His show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution chronicles his 3 months in Huntington, West Virginia and the 3 months that followed.

Why Huntington? Very simply, the Huntington/Cabell County area was determined by the US CDC as having the highest combined rates of obesity and diabetes in the county. More than 1 in 8 residents have diagnosed diabetes and nearly 1 in every 3 are considered obese. But Huntington is not alone in this unfortunate status. Across Appalachia and through the deep south, diabetes and obesity are epidemics with the rest of the country not too far behind. According to the same CDC study, obesity across the US hovers around 1 in every 5 people.

Great Britain's struggles with obesity was what led to Jamie Oliver to begin his food revolution there. Like in Huntington, he began in the schools, where the diet of school children can most easily be monitored and controlled. By rejecting processed foods in favor fresh and healthy alternatives, he and others there are making dramatic in-roads into childhood obesity. So it only made sense to see if he could translate his experiment to the United States. Was he successful? Well yes and no.

The six part series on ABC chronicled his six month experience with Huntington/Cabell County's school district. The thesis was simple. If he could show success in a middle America place like Huntington, WV then surely it would translate across the rest of the country. What he ran in to was no less than a full court press of good old American bureaucracy, beginning with the school district and leading right up to the steps of the US Capitol.

From the mountain of irrational dietary requirements put forth by the federal government to the heavily subsidized processed foods that are dumped into school districts across the country, Jamie discovered that this was a long term proposition. My wife and I were dumbfounded at how schools regularly provide, for example, flavored milk products (strawberry and chocolate) that are loaded with as much sugar as sodas all as a means to get children their required daily calcium and vitamin D. Hmmm, take something that children don't like and saturate it with sugar. What's next, candy coated broccoli or chocolate asparagus?

Very simply, what Jamie ran into was the wall of entrenched specialization. Someone, somewhere convinced the powers that be that it was necessary to ensure that children drank milk. And someone responded by delivering a variety of milk products to ensure that directive was fulfilled. It is a bureaucracy established to control and deliver one narrow policy in absence of a broader picture.

In building our cities, many of us have long realized that the same micro-management of minutiae exists in every level of the built environment. The moment you try to approach a problem comprehensively, the specialists all awaken and tell you why their narrow focus must be heeded in spite of their obvious shortcomings when taken as a whole. The stormwater guys have said that all urbanism is bad because it pollutes our water supply uniformly. The traffic guys will make you oversize your streets because that is what the state or national standard requires. And the environmentalists will protect a wetland regardless of how beneficial it really is to the greater ecosystem. The list goes on and on and on.

We need more Jamies out there fighting for common sense, a trait that our first world "affluenza" has taken from us. It's more about consumption that fulfills our short term wants and than prudence for the long-term needs. And people like Jamie who are willing to roll up their sleeves and fight the system - people who are willing to ask "Why do we do it this way?" and who are not willing to accept "because" as an answer.

As they say, the revolution starts in the hills. In this case we hope that it's in the hills of Huntington, West Virginia.

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