An Unreasonable Attack on the Naked Chef

With the debut of his new program Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, the British chef has dramatically raised his profile stateside. And if you're one of the millions who believes that Oliver is on a noble crusade to save the world's schoolchildren from fattening, poorly made, industrialized school lunch, you might want to pop over to that libertarian bastion, Reason, for a look at the other side of the argument.

In an unremittingly hostile piece, writer Baylen Linnekin skewers Oliver as proponent of crazy liberal government spending for government spending's sake:

"Oliver launched the Feed Me Better campaign, which he designed with the admirable goal of getting British school kids to eat healthier food. But while he could have argued in favor of parents or kids packing the cheap, easy, and tried-and-true alternative to school food--brown bag lunches--Oliver opted instead to urge more government control and increased spending on big-ticket items."

What this point (which is made in various "big spender!" iterations that seem calculated to win mega-dittos and Diggs from the Tea Party Nation) seems to miss is the following: Many of the children who are most in need of a nutritious, well-balanced lunch are from the families who are least able to provide them in brown bag form. What Oliver is demanding--relatively healthy school meals made with more whole food ingredients--is, in fact, sometimes more expensive than simply defrosting bags of Tyson chicken nuggets. The real argument should be whether the health and day-to-day ability to learn of schoolchildren is worth increased government spending.

Linnekin doesn't want to discuss the fact that school lunch is the only option that some children get; instead, he's busy lighting off pyrotechnics. Particularly enjoyable is when the writer manages to tie Oliver to the World War II-era German bombing raids on London:

"(Oliver’s better-eating-and-living-through-wartime-rationing cant doesn’t hold up to common sense or hard wartime truths, which in addition to food rationing included the quite unhealthy consequences of more than one-half-million British war dead and lengthy periods of nightly Nazi bombing raids on London and other British cities.)"

So, yeah. Somehow, we go from Oliver making the relatively sane point that wartime austerity and victory gardens had a healthy impact on British diets to Oliver deliberately ignoring "hard wartime truths" like Nazi bombs. Which are related to school lunch. Somehow.

Only slightly more relevant is when Linnekin points out that Oliver was, at one point, fat. And that he has used the word "manifesto." And that he made a claim to Sudanese ancestry at one point. Upshot: this isn't a well-argued dissection of Oliver's program, it's a drive-by shotgun attack.

This is a shame. Amid all the hysteria, Linnekin scores some completely valid points that would be fascinating to explore in depth and with ample supporting evidence. For example: Kids have rejected Oliver's meals because of their taste. Not all of his meals have hit their nutritional goals. There is data suggesting that kids eating Oliver's Feed Me Better program food actually performed worse than (or at the same rate) as before the program was implemented. (The authors of the paper that might suggest this--according to Linnekin, who I'm a little reluctant to trust amid all his other mud-slinging--also suggest that absences related to illness dropped notably in the schools using Oliver's dietary program.)

A more thoughtful editor might have gotten this screed, looked it over, and said: "Look, let's dump the Fibber McGee's closet of attack stuff and drill down and explore the data from the paper that suggests Oliver's food doesn't actually help children perform better. Why? What's going on here? And is there an economically feasible way to improve school food for kids who can't brown bag it effectively?"

Instead: A 10-gauge blast of right-wing keywords. Ladies and gentlemen, the usually excellent and thought-provoking journal Reason presents Jamie Oliver: Big government-loving, overspending, socialist jerk.