Jamie Oliver, the Better Food Foundation’s founder is a chef, author, television personality, and food activist. His TV series include The Naked Chef (BBC), Jamie’s Ministry of Food, and the Emmy Award–winning Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (ABC).
It’s 2013, and we live in a world where the majority of us have a broken relationship with food. There are around two billion undernourished people but also more than one billion who are dangerously overweight or obese, and that number is going up.
If you’re reading this in the United States or the United Kingdom, then congratulations: you live in one of the unhealthiest nations in the world.
The question is no longer how we got here, because any intelligent person with one eye on the media will know the answers. The question now is, “What can we do about it?” I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the people power of last year’s Food Revolution Day is an example of what can be achieved by harnessing the passion and dedication of a small but growing handful of food ambassadors globally—more on this later.
Meanwhile, if you’re a national government, apparently it’s a hard question to answer. First Lady Michelle Obama has asked us to get off our sofas in her Let’s Move campaign, and there have been other widely publicized health initiatives led by high-profile people—including myself. But as for an actual plan from any national government, we’re still waiting.
I believe that even the best governments can only think short term—as far as the next election or, at best, the one after that. Big problems that will take decades to solve are overwhelming, and the likelihood is that by the time things get really bad, the other guy will be in power. So I’m pretty sure a lot of them think that big solutions can wait. They can’t.
We’re at a particularly dangerous time in the United Kingdom. The latest figures from our National Health Service show that two-thirds of adult men are now overweight or obese. More worrying still are the figures for children. In the United Kingdom, 22 percent of our kids are overweight or obese when they start school at age four or five; by the time they leave primary school at 11, that figure rises to 33 percent. What chance do these kids have of turning their lives around when two to three generations of parents have lost the ability to feed themselves and their families properly, using the basic life skills that our great-grandparents took for granted?
If we look to the future, we see projections of expanding waistbands, worsening health, poorer quality of life for billions of people, completely overwhelmed health services, and less productive workforces. Is this the future we hoped for? Of course not. But it is the future we deserve unless we take urgent action.
It’s not too late to make a difference. There is a solution, and I think it’s actually a pretty simple one that every single person reading this can get involved in right now. As a campaigner and a food lover, but most importantly as a father (and hopefully one day a grandfather), I cannot stand by and watch this global health disaster unfold. That’s why I believe passionately in food education and in the power of people and communities all across the world to get together to make positive changes.
I believe that every kid in every school deserves to learn the basics about food: where it comes from, how to cook it, and how it affects their bodies. These life skills are as important as reading and writing, but they have been rapidly lost over the past few generations. Food education should be a legal requirement in every country. I’ve always loved the idea that some of the most delicious food and, honestly, the happiest families come from some of the poorest countries. What truly makes them rich is their knowledge, and that’s why it’s a crime that any country involved in this current health epidemic doesn’t have mandatory cooking lessons, decent food on offer for breakfast and lunch at school, and sufficient physical education. I know that with one e-mail, education ministries in many countries could get small chunks of food awareness wrapped around every single subject that’s taught in school.
We’ve recently received some good news in the United Kingdom, where the government announced a new program of mandatory cooking lessons in school for kids aged 7 to 14. I’m waiting to see the detail, but in principle this is a huge and important step.
We know that cooking classes inspire kids. In 2011, the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and Childhood Obesity Research Center evaluated some of the food-education programs we were running from our “Big Rig” mobile kitchen. Their study showed that the vast majority of kids grew more confident, were more likely to help make dinner at home (and so watched less TV while eating), and ate fewer meals in the car. Some 92 percent of the students felt that learning about nutrition was interesting, 82 percent agreed that they would try to cook the meals they had learned to cook at home, and 96 percent said they were happy they had taken the class.
Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence from the Ministry of Food centers that I launched in Australia and the United Kingdom suggest that the majority of adults who complete our healthy-cooking courses are saving money, losing weight, and gaining confidence—and often new friends—through the easily acquired knowledge of how to cook from scratch, as opposed to relying on prepared meals and takeout food.
A few generations ago, our great-grandparents knew how to stretch the family budget in tough economic times by buying cheaper cuts of meat, baking their own bread, and making the weekly groceries last. These days, too many families lack that knowledge. They end up spending more on supposedly cheaper, less nutritious prepared meals and bread full of additives. We need urgent action, and workplaces and communities can play a huge part. If your staffers can feed themselves properly and love cooking delicious, nutritious meals, then of course they’ll be healthier, more productive, and happier. Don’t we all want employees who are fitter for business and take fewer sick days?
The sustainable transformation of individuals, families, and communities doesn’t come from one action. Everything has to change, everyone must contribute, and everybody needs to be open-minded about change. It’s not easy, but that doesn’t mean individuals can’t lead the way. Of course, governments and other large organizations need to step up, but there’s no reason better food choices can’t start with individuals—and be fun.
I believe big change happens when lots of people get involved. That’s why I started Food Revolution Day last year. The idea is to set aside a single day each year for people worldwide to raise awareness about food education. It’s not specifically designed to send a message to governments—most don’t listen anyway—but to be the start of a grassroots movement. I believe Food Revolution Day can grow to become a catalyst for all those wonderful campaigners, chefs, teachers, doctors, parents, bloggers, journalists, and kids all over the world who want to eat better or who already know how to eat well and want to share their valuable knowledge.
Sharing is the key, whether you’re a grandparent or parent teaching your kids, a chef or food educator teaching in your community, or even a good home cook who wants to pass on your knowledge to your friends at work. Big change starts with little changes on a local and personal level. Before you know it, you’re part of something huge.
We launched Food Revolution Day on May 19, 2012. Amazingly, we sponsored 1,000 events, big and small, in 664 cities around the world, all hosted by passionate, brilliant people who cared. In San Francisco, a group of volunteers offered public tours of a local farmers market. Participants received valuable tips on how to buy and cook local produce. That night, the tour guides hosted an event at IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm, that gathered a larger group of foodies and techies in the hope of forming lasting relationships. In Hong Kong, a group of local food bloggers and volunteers put together a successful cooking class, inspiring hundreds of local people. And in Milan, local Food Revolution ambassadors organized a huge range of events, from dinners to cooking classes.
One year later, we’ve made great connections and have begun to empower Food Revolution ambassadors across the world who care deeply about good food and want to share their knowledge with others. We now have ambassadors in 71 countries, and the number is growing. These are passionate folks who believe that food education can change lives for the better.
We’re doing Food Revolution Day all over again on May 17 this year, and it’s going to be bigger, better, and louder. We’re going to keep on doing it until we’re so loud that governments will have to listen. Please join us; you, too, can change the future.