Surrounded by the scent of melted butter and the sound of clicking cameras, the man who wants to save schoolchildren from pink slime kicked off his cooking class with a counterintuitive item: pancakes.
Jamie Oliver, one of the world’s most recognizable celebrity chefs, was clearly enjoying the moment on a recent Monday morning in Sacramento, essentially a Food Network scene come to life. But instead of flipping his scratch-made flapjacks on a soundstage, Oliver was working the burners in front of local media and fans in a refurbished 53-foot semi-truck trailer with a mobile kitchen.
Parked at 14th and K streets, the vehicle’s next stop will be Sacramento Charter High School, where Oliver’s Big Rig Teaching Kitchen will continue the chef’s mission of bringing food education and cooking skills to young people and communities in need.
“Good food isn’t just for the rich!” Oliver announced in a cheery but insistent British accent. “Are we ready, everyone? Are you feeling the love?”
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Healthful but delicious pancakes are just an appetizer to Oliver’s overall mission. The British-born chef was demonstrating how the Big Rig Teaching Kitchen can help teach young people life skills through cooking, and perhaps save them from gut-busting trips through the drive-through. The butter is organic, as is the flour and most other ingredients on the truck. Perky images of fish, fruits and kitchen utensils decorate its interior.
Oliver wants his big rig to be a driver of food education, especially in underserved communities. He also hopes to encourage schools to eliminate the mystery meats and processed foods and provide more-nutritious student meals.
“When you come down to it, getting great food in a school is not rocket science,” said Oliver, before the Sacramento demonstration.
The Big Rig Teaching Kitchen will park at Sacramento Charter High from Friday through Feb. 7. Instructors from the Jamie Oliver Foundation will lead a series of sold-out classes and cooking demonstrations that feature fish, eggs, “healthy fast food” and, of course, pancakes. The program works in conjunction with California Endowment, a nonprofit foundation that promotes health education in low-income communities.
Sacramento Charter High School was chosen to host the Big Rig Teaching Kitchen in part for its proximity to Oak Park and the school’s existing healthful-eating initiatives. Like Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights and east Oakland, the area has been targeted by the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities program to foster safe and healthy neighborhoods.
Every social movement can use some star power to increase awareness, and Oliver has plenty of it, from writing a string of best-selling cookbooks, appearing on “The Naked Chef” and other TV shows, and cooking for the likes of President Barack Obama.
But what Oliver lacks in Michelin stars – he’s never earned one as a chef or restaurateur – Oliver has more than compensated in accessibility and overall popularity.
Oliver, 38, became a culinary star with the 1999 debut of “The Naked Chef” on the BBC in England. The “naked” part didn’t come from cooking in his birthday suit, but for preparing tasty meals that highlighted simplicity. His 2010 cookbook, “Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals,” set a record for the fastest-selling nonfiction title of all-time with 735,000 copies in 10 weeks. Other cookbooks by Oliver, including “Jamie’s Italy” and “Jamie at Home,” have become essential for many home cooks.
In person, Oliver looks more like a Brit-pop singer than the archetypal, stressed-out chef in a toque. His hair is carefully unkempt, and on this chilly Sacramento morning, he’s wearing an untucked plaid shirt and Nike sneakers. His face is cherubic and friendly, but his blue eyes turn intent when he’s talking food politics.
He cites a 2009 survey from the California Department of Public Health that found 40 percent of 200 responding school districts don’t provide access to free drinking water during school meals. The survey also found students shied away from water fountains due to their poor maintenance.
“That’s embarrassing,” said Oliver. “How can you put someone on the moon and not have clean water in the schools?”
Food politics have become as important to Oliver as crafting the perfect recipe for orecchiette with raw tomato sauce. In 2002 Oliver opened London’s Fifteen restaurant, which trains 15 disadvantaged young people yearly for work in the restaurant industry.
Oliver, a father of four, first crusaded for better school meals in England during the mid-2000s. His documentary series, “Jamie’s School Dinners,” featured Oliver encouraging healthful eating in students and revamping school meal programs. Some students revolted against his junk food bans and many cafeteria workers cringed at their increased kitchen duties. Oliver ultimately found public and governmental support, including a multimillion-dollar initiative to improve school foods.
He brought “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” stateside in 2010, and with TV cameras following, the chef similarly tried to overhaul school lunch programs. The show famously exposed pink slime, an ammonia-treated beef product that’s widely used in food production.
“I’ve done a lot in England,” said Oliver, who’s rarely one for short conversations. “I raised $1 billion and raised food standards. I took over a district of 36,000 kids. When you come to a totally different country and (people) say, ‘No, you can’t,’ I say, ‘You can.’ ”
In the United States, Oliver faces a young population that has increasingly added pounds. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, obesity in adolescents has tripled nationally over the past 30 years.
The $500,000 Big Rig Teaching Kitchen was launched in 2011, using monies Oliver won in the TED Prize, which grants funds for initiatives that carry possible global impact. The big rig has since focused its efforts in California, stopping in such cities as Fresno, Long Beach and Los Angeles.
Making school menus fresher and more nutritious, not to mention changing the eating habits of young people, is easy to advocate but tough to execute. Many dynamics are at play with school food programs, including cost considerations, federally mandated nutrition guidelines, lack of kitchen equipment and the condition of many schools themselves.
Local public school lunch menus are still peppered with processed foods from large corporations. Among the offerings for the Sacramento City Unified School District’s January breakfast and lunch menus: Pillsbury Minni Cinnis cinnamon rolls and Triple Berry French toast, a choice of Tyson chicken tender filets or Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue roast chicken, and an assortment of General Mills cereals.
The bulk of public school meal ingredients come from government commodities, though some schools are working to include fresh locally sourced foods.
John Bays, a former food services site supervisor with the Sacramento City Unified School District, said he tried to embed a farm-to-fork ethos for student meal programs and create more dishes from scratch. But with student lunches fixed at $2.75, and up to 70 percent of district students on a reduced-cost lunch program, incorporating fresh, local foods was more of a pie-in-the-sky prospect than financially practical.
“It’s a mess,” said Bays, now executive chef at midtown’s The Red Rabbit. “You can’t do farm-to-table because you’re serving 30,000 to 40,000 kids a day. It’s all about dollars and cents. Figuring out how to stretch the quality along with the dollar can solve the problem. Some of it is smoke and mirrors. You might be using the same commodity product but just making it look better.”
Sacramento Charter High School, meanwhile, contracts with Sodexo to run its meals program. Sodexo is a multinational food service provider that counts sports stadiums and hospitals as clients, and also operates the student dining services at UC Davis.
Sacramento Charter High School also instituted an “Edible Sac High” program with a student-run garden and goals for a student-run cafeteria and kitchen classroom. Edible Sac High is modeled after the Edible Schoolyard program founded by farm-to-fork figurehead Alice Waters, but not an official affiliate. Waters has endorsed Edible Sac High, which received significant support and fundraising efforts from Mayor Kevin Johnson.
Edible Sac High’s garden recently produced its first crop: broccoli, spinach, lettuce. The school has worked with Sodexo to incorporate these campus-grown ingredients into student lunches and offer nutritious meals.
“Change naturally takes time, but (Sodexo) was happy to work with us to offer food that was fresh and from scratch,” said Erika Dimmler, project manager for Edible Sac High. “Sometimes you think teenagers have decided what they’re going to eat, but we’ve found at Sac High there can very much be a dialogue about health and nutrition. If you engage with the students, you can change hearts and minds.”
The Big Rig Teaching Kitchen will work closely with Sac High students and the community at large. The free classes in home cooking and food education will be taught primarily by two instructors, not the Naked Chef himself.
Oliver hopes kids will make better choices about what they’re willing to digest through this bit of hands-on cooking and education. Those ready-made snacks and juice boxes might be tasty, but he wants to peel away the packaging and help kids understand the potential health consequences.
The chef concedes that changing school lunch programs won’t be easy, considering existing contracts with food suppliers and the finicky nature of kids themselves. But the conversation has to start somewhere. So the journey continues for Oliver, with upcoming big rig stops in Merced and San Diego.
“The world through my eyes is such a kind of frightening and inspiring and shocking place,” said Oliver. “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing no matter what.”