6 Jul 2006
What Can We Learn from Jamie’s School Dinners? – 10 Insights for Energy Descent.
I’m sure you all saw this when it came out, but not having a TV I only just saw it on the newly released DVD. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, Jamie Oliver is a TV chef who undertook to try and change school dinners in the UK. The programme and the campaign that arose from it have had a huge effect on school meals in the UK, and, it could be argued, did more to put one issue on the public agenda than any single campaign run by an environmental group over the last 50 years. So, what can we learn from Jamie’s School Dinners that can help with energy descent planning projects?
As has been argued before here at **Transition Culture**, peak oil demands a response on an unprecedented scale, what Lester Brown calls a ‘wartime mobilisation’. The fact that Jamie Oliver managed to initiate the most sweeping rethink of school meals in the UK leads me to think that we might learn something from his approach. Clearly we are not all TV celebrity chefs, we do not have well funded research teams behind us, and we do not yet have his degree of credibility. However, I think, having watched the series, and having developed a deep admiration for what he achieved and how he achieved it, that there are 10 things we can learn from it that can inform our energy descent work.
**#1. Start Where People Are At**
In the first episode, Jamie goes into a school and works alongside the dinner ladies for a while, observing how they do things. He doesn’t start by being critical, he just observes and gets a clear picture of the present reality. This level of humility is really important, it also values what people are doing at the moment, not assuming that people do what they do now because they are wrong, or somehow misguided, but just because that is how it has been done up to that point.
**#2. Don’t Preach.**
The tone of the programme is never preachy, it never points the finger. When he talks about the companies that produce ghastly crap like turkey twizzlers ( a vile reconstituted meat product that forms that staple of many school dinners) he doesn’t rant about the unsustainability of the globalised food system, or how evil it is that companies produce this kind of thing, he goes to them and engages them in a dialogue. I think the programme also manages to avoid being preachy because while it is about changing school meals and food, it is not just a talking shop, and he is so obviously putting himself out there and making huge sacrifices in his own life.
**#3. Be Real.**
In the series Jamie Oliver comes across as a normal guy with a family who works hard and cares passionately about this issue. The cameras follow him home to his family put under strain due to his overwork, sees him taking the “where on earth are you, you said you’d be home 5 hours ago” phone calls from his wife, and dealing with press intrusion into his life. Clearly carrying this school dinners project puts a huge strain on him and his family, at a few points in the series you can really see the stress he is under, near the end he breaks into tears with it all. You really feel for the guy and what he is doing, and how much of himself he puts into it. Our energy descent work should be carried in part by the fact that people can respect the fact that we are clearly dedicated and passionate about the subject, yet are also people they can identify with.
**#4. Don’t Assume That The People In Charge Will Be Resistant.**
One of things I learnt from the Kinsale Energy Descent Plan process was the power of avoiding the ‘them and us’ dynamic at all costs. The Town Council, who many expected to be resistent, actually embraced the process with great enthusiasm. Jamie goes to talk to the councillors and politicians and engages them as individuals, never overawed or overly respectful, but also never pushy or confrontational. He invites all the headteachers from the area to his restaurant for a meal and engages them with food and a feeling of being part of an exhilarating ground breaking revolution. When he meets the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, for a meeting in his restaurant, he first serves him the meal school kids were getting at that point, a piece of revolting looking reconstituted meat, and some ‘smileys’, potato mush stuff covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried in the shape of smiley faces. By putting that meal alongside what Jamie had been able to produce for the same price, he won the Minister over.
**#5. Don’t Give Up.**
There are times during the series when everything seems to be against him. The dinnerladies can’t cope, the kids won’t eat his food and protest about it, parents smuggle McDonalds meals into their kids in school, the Council blocks the project because it is over budget, the strain on his family life becomes too much. What really impressed me was how he persevered, kept at it, came up with new and imaginative ways to engage people and keep it going. After a certain point it developed a momentum where it just *couldn’t* stop. In our energy descent work we will encounter blocks and resistancies, I drew a lot of inspiration from his flexibility of thinking and his ability to think laterally around problems.
**#6. Appeal to Core Values.**
At the end of the day, people care more about the health of the kids in their family, their school, their community, than they do about global issues to do with agriculture and the food industry. Everyone has at their core values the wish for their children to be healthy, to grow up with the best possible option of becoming wise and fulfilling their potential. One some innate level, the idea that we should not be feeding our children with food that shortens their lifespan, makes them disruptive, sick and slower to learn resonates with people. At one point he says that this is the first generation that is expected to die before their parents. That fact hits home to a lot more people than statistics about food miles and E numbers. In terms of energy descent, one of the insights from Motivational Interviewing is the power of getting people to juxtapose their actions and behaviours with their core values. This can be far more powerful than trying to prompt action by simply presenting information or using guilt tripping.
**#7. Seek out the people who can carry it.**
Aside from Jamie, the star of the show is Nora, the head dinner lady from the school he starts with. To begin with she is resistant and not keen on Jamie’s new ideas and his desire to change things. The two clash on occasions and at the start their relationship is quite strained. As the process goes on however, she is able to see his point of view and he skillfully engages her in the process, sending her as an ambassador to other schools. In the end she is the main person, training other dinner ladies and helping them through. An intelligent, humourous and engaging woman, she clearly is touched by what Jamie is trying to do, and talks movingly about how it has affected her life, being part of something so exciting. “I thought that was it”, she says “that I’d just be opening packets until I retired”.
**#8. Create a sense of a collective adventure.**
Jamie manages to create a buzz, a sense that something important is happening that people should be a part of. He takes all the dinner ladies from the part of London he is taking over responsibility for away to an army camp to teach them how to cook (amazingly many of them lacked even basic cookery skills). He created a sense that they were part of something important and revolutionary. With the kids in the schools, he found after a while of the kids rejecting his food, that having a ‘food week’ where food issues were woven into every class vastly increased the acceptability of his meals. At the beginning of his work, there was a lot of resistance, after a while it generated a momentum that was unstoppable.
**#9. Use Shock Tactics Sparingly**
In the peak oil movement as well as the wider environmental movement, there is a tendency to overuse shock as a technique. We feel that if we provide lots of shocking information people will change, whereas the evidence is that it has the opposite effect, reenforcing peoples’ entrenched positions. Jamie avoids this as much as possible, but in the last episode he takes one group of kids who are especially resistant to the new meals and are still saying they want chicken nuggets and turkey twizzlers, and takes them into a classroom to show them how they are actually made. The sight of him blending chicken skins in the blender, making his own mechanically recovered meat and adding fat and dextrose, is enough to put them off nuggets for life. “So they’re fake food” says one kid. Exactly. In terms of energy descent work, there is much to be said for occasionally using shock tactics to put a mirror up to current practices, but only occasionally and in particular circumstances.
**#10. Be Compassionate.**
One of the things that really came across to me was that the whole process that he began is about caring for the most vulnerable children in our society. He goes to Durham, the town in the UK with the worst diet, and works with a school there. Children don’t even recognise rhubarb and celery when shown them, but they recognise the logos of all the main fast food suppliers. Some childrens diets are so bad that they have the most dreadful health problems, caused entirely by their food. The thrust of the series is about helping and being of service to the kids and their families, and I really admired that.
So, yes I loved the series. It is a compelling narrative, and gripping television. My kids watched it from start to finish without being prompted at all, and it got them all talking about food issues, and they actually I think felt quite proud about how many vegetables they knew, and I think perhaps realised why their parents have been dishing them up what they disparagingly refer to as “hippy food” for the last 12 years. The only low point for me was the bit where he buys his wife a brand new car for her birthday to cheer her up, that would have been left on the cutting room floor (do they have cutting room floors any more?). If he had bought her a really nice racing bike that would have done it for me (and enhanced the programme’s green credentials….).
Anyway, do get hold of a copy, it is very inspiring viewing. It is at once a depressing snapshot of how modern society feeds its children and the impacts of that, and also a brilliant example of how change can happen. While we do not have all of the tools at our disposal that Jamie Oliver had, we can apply the 10 lessons outlined above to our work, and they will go a long way to contributing to our success.