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TV chef Jamie Oliver rebuffed in bid to make LA school food more healthy

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver planned to do a six-part reality series in Los Angeles aimed at improving school meals and focusing on reducing obesity and diabetes, but education authorities were too camera-shy.

The British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has received a setback in his attempt to bring healthier eating to schools in Los Angeles.
The British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has received a setback in his attempt to bring healthier eating to schools in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES // British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has perfected his anti-obesity recipe over the years: blend a passion for nutrition with reality TV, garnish with a catchy moniker, et voila! - Food Revolution.

But Mr Oliver's recipe has uncharacteristically curdled since he arrived in Los Angeles last fall to shoot his second US TV series. "I've had a tough time here," he conceded wearily in an interview. "Nothing that was planned has come off."

The six-episode show was to revolve around one of Oliver's favourite causes - making school lunches healthier - but ran under a rolling pin when the Los Angeles Unified School District objected to the chef's key ingredient: TV cameras.

Robert Alaniz, the district spokesman, said: "We're interested in Jamie Oliver the food activist, not Jamie the reality TV star. We've invited him to work with our menu committee, but there's too much drama, too much conflict with a reality show."

It was quite a twist for Mr Oliver, 35, a household name back home, where he's been decorated by the Queen and cooked at 10 Downing Street. He heads a multimillion-dollar eponymously branded empire that has produced 20 TV series and specials, 14 best-selling cookbooks, 20 restaurants, cooking schools, a catering company, an array of cooking and dining products, supermarket endorsements, as well as a charity for poor children.

You would never know it, though, from his tousled hair that looks like he just rolled out of bed and a wardrobe of jeans and checked shirts. The one-of-the-lads demeanour underscores the earnestness of his pitch for home, not haute, cuisine.

The son of a publican, he grew up cooking "pub grub". He quit school at 16, after struggling for years with dyslexia and hyperactivity, and enrolled in catering college. In 1999, he landed his first TV show The Naked Chef after the BBC was filming the restaurant where he was working and saw he was an on-camera natural.

Mr Oliver's concept is simple: obesity kills and cooking meals from scratch using fresh ingredients will save lives. It is a message he wields with zeal in home kitchens, school classrooms, and corporate boardrooms.

He encourages the food industry to believe that caring can be commercial. "They can make ethical change that will genuinely shift toward health and away from obesity," said Mr Oliver, who is in constant motion - even seated his leg bounces furiously.

School lunches are a particular passion for Mr Oliver, a father of four. He revamped cafeteria cuisine in Britain and 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.

Part of the show focused on a menu makeover in Cabell County schools, a 12,700-student district. It wasn't easy, said Jedd Flowers, district spokesman.

Mr Oliver's recipes did not adhere to state standards, food costs were higher and new suppliers had to be located, staff had to be reorganised and new equipment bought - a $200,000 (Dh735,000) industrial potato peeler, for example - to stick to the freshly prepared mandate.

Cabell County children were not enamoured of new dishes like honey carrots and more started bringing brown-bag lunches. Lunch participation has since rebounded as childrens' tastebuds are getting used to the new food, which includes Mr Oliver recipes such as creamy coleslaw and chili con carne, Mr Flowers said.

"He had the children's interests at heart. The quality of the food is much better," he said. "But the TV show was quite an ordeal. It was disruptive and used gimmicks. I can't say the television show was a benefit, but looking at the process was."

Mr 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 1.2 million meals daily.

"It's such an amazing amount of meals a day," said the chef.

The district said no. A previous sour experience with the reality show School Pride, which used re-enactments of made-up incidents and left the school district with a bill, factored into superintendent Ramon Cortines' decision, as well as reports from Cabell County schools, district spokesman Alaniz said.

However, West Adams Preparatory High School in Central Los Angeles, which is run by the nonprofit MLA Partner Schools under contract, allowed Mr Oliver on campus as a curriculum addition. After two weeks of filming, the district caught wind of it and booted the show off the premises.

Mike McGalliard, the president of MLA Partner Schools, said: "We aren't happy about it. 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 said, and all qualify for free lunches that feature items such as chicken nuggets and corn dogs, with side dishes such as raw broccoli.

Mr 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.

Student Caleb Villanueva, 17, said: "They think Jamie is the threat. The threat is diabetes and high cholesterol."

Sophia Ruvalcaba, 17, who has diabetes, as do her mother and sister, said Mr Oliver came to their home for dinner. "He was just trying to make a healthier meal for us," she said.

Mr Oliver said he's not trying to cast the school district in a bad light. He calls his style "documentary with stunts". For example, he filled a school bus with 57 tonnes of white sand to represent the amount of sugar children in the district children consume weekly in flavoured milk.

Those kind of made-for-TV stunts are exactly what the district finds unappetising.

Mr Alaniz said the district remains willing to work with Mr Oliver - off camera. They have suggested that he lend his expertise by coming up with three weeks of meal plans, adhering to the district's food budget of 77 cents per meal and state standards.

Mr Alaniz said the district has been on its own culinary crusade for years, banning junk foods, soft drinks, additives, dyes and certain fats and oils. Next year, chicken nuggets and pizza will be taken off the cafeteria lineup, replaced by student taste-tested dishes such as California sushi roll, chicken tandoori and couscous.

Mr Oliver, however, is not one to give up a food fight.

He has a team of chefs working on the district's menus and hopes the new superintendent slated to take over in April will be more flexible. In the meantime, he's setting up four more community kitchens around LA, paid for by the American Heart Association at a cost of about $180,000 each, to offer free cooking classes, and will be taking his mobile kitchen set up in an 18-wheel lorry around Southern California.

"I want the American public to expect more," he said. "It might take a couple years to get there, but I'm deeply passionate that when everyone comes together, stuff changes."