The Girl Who Ate Everything

Blogging about food and whatever since 2004.

Jamie's School Dinners and a pointless look at my compulsory school years

taking screenshots is annoying

I've just watched two episodes of Jamie's School Dinners so far. It's fantastic. Download the show, stat! Or buy the DVD, although that's only for you UK-residents.

Oh...uh, what is the show about? It's a four-part documentary that follows Jamie Oliver as he tries to improve school dinners (my assumption is that "dinner" = lunch) in Britain. He starts at Kidbrooke School to learn the ropes of how a school kitchen works (slice open bags of food, reheat food) and get an alarming reality check into the psychology of kid's eating habits. All they want are chips. Nuggets of some reconstituted meat products. No fruits or vegetables. Golden and fried, just the way arteries em. He tries to come up with healthier choices that stay within the budget of 37p (about 69 cents) per portion, but it', really hard, especially coming from a business where one prices the food based on whatever it's made of, not the other way around. And come on—37p?

Things get a little better in the second episode when he visits a primary school in Durham, the county with the highest rate of health problems in children in the country. He teaches the kids to identify vegetables and gets them involved in cooking their own meal so that they'll eventually want to eat the fresh cooked stuff made from whole foods instead of processed foods like turkey twizzlers. It also helps that he dresses up like a stalk of corn and lets the kids chase him around as he dashes around in mutant-corn form.

Nora, the head dinner lady at Kidbrooke, is a real character. She knows what she's doing, she's insanely dedicated to her job, she wants the kids to eat well, and...she likes a good smoke. Initially, Jamie may act like a hardass as Nora tries to get him to follow the correct procedures to make sure all the food gets out on time (it doesn't), but after implementing a job switch where she works at his restaurant Fifteen for a day while he takes control of the school kitchen, they understand better where the other person is coming from. AND ALL IS GOOD, HAPPY SMILES, WEE.

...Actually, I don't know that yet, seeing as I haven't watched the last two parts of the show, but I'll get on that.

Has anyone else seen this show and thought it was pretty awesome? I think it's pretty awesome, certainly the most interesting show I've seen in a while. I'll admit that I don't watch TV anyway, but if a show sounds interesting enough, I'll watch it. I tried Top Chef, but it didn't do anything for me. It'd be great if a famous American chef could try to improve public school lunches and start some kind of campaign for better food, assuming there isn't already something like that in place (is there?).

When I was in high school, I was frustrated by how bad the food was. wasn't even that bad. The less objectional foods were salads, pizza, and sandwiches (I usually went for sandwiches, at least until I stopped eating the school food, opting instead to eat lunch after I got home around 3 PM), while the ones I found more distasteful were the "fast food"-type junk (am I the only person who doesn't like curly fries?) and the hot lunches. Although I can't remember what all the hot lunches were, one of them sticks out in my mind: nachos. Yeah. A pile of tortilla chips with some watery ground beef, salsa, shredded iceberg lettuce, excessive sour cream, maybe some cheese...actually, it wasn't really the worst thing in the world, but it seemed like a sad idea for a lunch. Then again, I must've eaten it on a few occassions to assess its sadness.

The food in my high school was made by Aramark. When Aramark followed me to Vassar, something inside me screamed, "NOOOOOO!!" The food at Vassar was much, much better than in high school, of course, but it surely isn't going to win any awards. (To give Vassar props, students successfully introduced some local foods and produce into the dining facilities when I was there in '03-'04; I'm not sure what that program is like today. Vassar even has its own farm, although I don't know if any of that food was actually eaten on campus. The best strawberries I've ever eaten were picked fresh from their farm and ruined all subsequent strawberry eating experiences.)

Do I still have anyone's attention? You'll have to forgive me for rambling here without the aid of food porn. Writing blog entries for me doesn't take much planning. I have no outline and my thoughts are not as organized as I'd like them to be. I think I have a point...or I had a point...

Okay, I'll just ramble on some more. For no reason, I'll fill you in on the history of my school lunch eating experiences. In my town, the elementary schools didn't have cafeterias. I thought it was normal to eat at your desk until I moved to Taiwan and from talking to other people found out that...nope, that's kinda weird. (I think by now the three elementary schools that I've attended have expanded and include some kind of dining facilities.) This means that I didn't have to rely on school to provide me with lunch, aside from the exciting pizza days (which I look back on in horror after eating pizza in NYC and learning that a slice of pizza shouldn't be 90% cheese nor should it be dripping in fluorescent, nearly glowing orange oil).

People frequently ask me what my mum cooks, to which I reply that she doesn't, not on a regular basis at least. However, she used to cook all the time when I was little (out of necessity more than desire) and I have to thank her for providing me with food that was probably a lot better than what other kids were getting. I ate chips, but I was unfamiliar to the world of snack cakes, candies, cereal, and whatever else constituted as popular snacks for kids. I'd imagine that being surrounded by kids eating certain foods would've made me want to eat them too, didn't. For some reason I remember one day looking at a friend search her backpack for her food and finding a smushed package of Twinkies. It didn't really look like food to me.

Don't get me wrong; I ate lots of junk food, just less than the average American, perhaps. While trying to remember what it is my mum packed for me, they were mainly leftovers from the previous night's dinner. I was the only kid with a thermos of rice and some accompanying protein. Many times it was leftover chicken fingers from Market Basket, which didn't taste that great since the yummy part of the chicken finger, the crust, was soggy. I think I may have gotten salmon, beef stew, or Swedish meatballs on a few occasions. It wasn't the most balanced meal, but I preferred it over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (not that my mum ever made PB&J sandwiches).

Looking back, I'm surprised I didn't express more distaste towards having different food from other kids. Have you ever read stories by people from immigrant families about how growing up they wanted American food instead of their ethnic cuisine so that they'd fit in better? ...Or did I just make that up? I'm positive there was an article in Giant Robot at some point.

I guess I didn't have that problem because I never fit in anyway (something that's still true today). I never saw the point of it, except maybe during one short period in 4th grade. (I considering 4th grade to be the "turning point" in elementary school when things went from happy and innocent to craptastic and cliquey.)

...My god, I'm just a strange kid. To be honest, I don't think I've changed much over my whole life. Many improvements to my character could be made, but I guess I'm more comfortable with the way I am than I thought I was. ...Wait, did that make any sense? [shrugs]


The best school food I've ever had was at Taipei American School, which I attended during 6th and 7th grades. It's not fair to compare their food to what I've had in the US since its a private school, but I just want to point it out. According to my friends, since I left their food has gotten a lot better. The food services website is pretty funny if you care to look around it.

Um. I still don't know what the point of this entry is.

OHHH, Jamie Oliver. I didn't know much about him before, but now I think he's pretty cool. He's not perfect, but he puts a lot of effort into improving school's food and doesn't back down. Watching the dedication he, Nora, and all the other school food service workers showed in efforts to improve school food made me wish I could do the same . It's not like I'm worried about my kids eating crap in school (seeing as I have no kids, nor do I plan on having them); it's just something that I think is important. Because...because...

I hated high school and 8th grade, i.e. the years I spend in the US public school system after moving back from Taiwan. It had nothing to do with teachers, even though that seems to be central to most kids' hatred of school (well, in my school at least). My classmates...just did nothing for me. They disappointed me with their disregard for how hard it is to be a teacher, their rudeness, stupid actions, constant complaining, laziness...sure, I complain about things, I'm lazy, and I do stupid things, but some of my classmates took these characteristics to a level that made me want to strangle them, or hope that they'd get the shit beat out of them in some way. I'm not that violent, I swear!


In my entire schooling career, I never felt like any teacher was out to get me or did anything unfair. I'm not saying that these teachers don't exist (surely, they do), just that I never had to encounter them. These are the kinds of complaints I heard from my friends and peers constantly, and while I may not know for sure that my teachers were innocent of any wrongdoing, my impression was that all they wanted to do was teach us, regardless of whether they were actually good at it. Duh. It's got to be one of the most difficult jobs; I could never do it. What I couldn't understand during high school was why the majority of other students didn't seem to realize how hard it was to teach us and that we were lucky to have good teachers. I guess you wouldn't care if you're an asshole though, which quite a number of students were. To be honest, many of my classmates were perfectly fine people, but it's the annoying ones you remember most clearly.

Good god, I don't know what my point is.

...Maybe if people ate better food, they would suck less. I know that eating a salad doesn't make you an angel, nor does eating a candy bar automatically make you an ADD-afflicted incarnation of the anti-Christ, but on a widescale serving wholesome food to kids has got to make some difference in the way they act and think. Kids would become more nutritionally-conscious, hopefully.

I just remembered a random thing that I'll shove in here because I don't know where else to put it. When I came back to NJ in 8th grade, I was completely unaware of what a hall pass was. To go to the bathroom, I needed a hall pass. To go to the office, I needed a hallpass. Was the piece of plastic going to keep me safe in case a locker fell on me? I dunno. In TAS, we had no hall passes. If you had to pee, you had to pee. There was no sense of distrust because why would you leave the class unless you had a good reason? I didn't understand the need to hover over us 8th graders, but I guess the school had their reasons. Or maybe they were just really paranoid.

I dunno what the point of that anecdote was, but as I've already typed it, I'll just leave it there.

On an unimportant note, the second episode of Jamie's School Dinners had music by Doves, Bell & Sebastian, and Blur. That's a pretty cool mix.

If you read this far, you're kind of crazy. It's memorial day weekend! Relaxation! Whatnot! I feel like I should be at a barbecue.


Alex / May 28, 2006 6:18 AM

I've watched Jamie's School Dinners. What I found interesting was the national outcry that followed the programme. Suddenly mums everywhere were signing petitions to improve the achool food, and under such pressure the government promised x amount of money increase the catering budget and the quality of the food.

I wanted to know where the money was coming from. To magiccally pull that much money out the air is impossible, and is a clear case of governments gving people what they want out of fear, rather than doing things at a slower but more sustainable pace.

Another example of this is the time they promised x amount of millions to refurbish the science labs and build badly needed new ones across the country to much fanfare in the press. A year later, the Times has an inch in a side column saying actually, they can't afford it so it's not going to happen.

On the actual food, the bit with chicken nuggets! OMG!

Your realtionship with food as a child definately influences your adult one. My mother is an ok cook, but often gets distracted half way through by something important and stuff burns. Thus the stuff she tends to cook is simple easy things that my little sisters will eat. Since I've been ant university, I've gone food mad, eating things I could never have at home.

Helen / May 28, 2006 7:21 AM

School Dinners was broadcast in Australia a year ago. It was a fantastic series.

I loved the segment when he held up a celery (I think?) to the class and some many kids couldn't identify it. The bit where he demonstrates to a kids cooking class exactly what goes into chicken nuggets is also hilarious =)

Claudia / May 28, 2006 8:00 AM

i love jamie, he is soo funny. i saw him on david letterman and they were cooking together, it was good stuff. i was never a fan of school lunch because last time i ate it, it was meatballs and i was food poisoned. also, i remember i walked by the cafeteria one morning and saw boxes that said frozen chicken and it was just disgusting - there it was, lunch of the day on the floor. i don't feel like i fit in anywhere either and at times all you need is two or three close friends and you're set on life. it isn't that i try to be anti-social but nobody talks to me nor do i try hard to make conversation because what do you say to somebody you don't know. i need some social skills...bleh.

Cathy / May 28, 2006 9:59 AM

I'll have to check out that Jamie guy. It's sad to hear that other countries are having the same problems with school lunches. Did you watch "SuperSize Me!"? I believe it was that movie that did a small piece about the crap they serve for school lunches. He (i forget his name) went to a school that actually had successfully changed their menu from the usual orange-glo pizza to whole foods, hand-made, low-fat, nutritious selections. No candy, twinkies, or anything pre-packaged or processed. The teachers said they saw a dramatic difference in the student's behavior and performance, especially after lunch. This wasn't private school either. It was a school for "at-risk" students, most coming from low-income areas. If I remember correctly, this new food program didn't turn out to be any more expensive than the old one, go figure.

cybele / May 28, 2006 12:03 PM

I haven't seen the show but we watch a lot of food network, so I'll see it eventually.

There was a special on the Food Network called "All Star Kitchen Makeovers".

Emeril redid the school kitchen at a tiny school in Harlem ... it made me cry it was so sweet.

But yeah, I'd love to see a cooking show about improving institutional food.

Kristin / May 28, 2006 1:00 PM

Haha, I love Jamie Olliver! :D

As someone elase already said, Emeril helped out with a cafeteria in Harlem. The only other thing I can think of is Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me taking on the evil corporation that is Sedexo. He mentioned in the movie that they have food service for a lot of public schools and prisons, but I know for a fact that they also run 90% of the college food service operations in Minnesota - and it's terrible food. My sister has to eat that crap.

Okay, looks like I'm rambling too. But yeah, Jamie Olliver is hott. Just had to say that, hehe.

chochotte / May 28, 2006 1:01 PM

It was a great series! There had been a bit of a Jamie backlash in the UK but that reinstated him as the foodies' golden boy.

My mum teaches in the London Borough of Greenwich, where they implemented his reforms (where Kidbrooke is) and so lots of her dinner ladies met him and said he was very lovely in real life, too. She also says that his lunches are good. However I think, at her school at any rate (for children with severe behaviour difficulties) they are allowed 1 junk food day a week...and it's still the kids' clear favourite. When they've been brought up on it, and get it for breakfast, dinner and snacks at home, it's too much for one meal to change. It's very very sad.

ali / May 28, 2006 1:10 PM

i love your entries, they're really entertaining :) Jamie Oliver cookbooks are really crap, just a word of warning.

Georgia / May 28, 2006 2:44 PM

I absolutely love this show (at least the two that I saw - why would you air a show this good at 7pm?) and I think it's brilliant. Thank you so much for the link to the download - I'm dying to see the first and last episodes.

I was told by a friend in the food magazine biz that this show saved Jamie's reputation in England. He was apparently known as a stuck-up jerk who hit it rich through dumb luck (he's apparently a premadonna on set) but this project made people love him.

Amy / May 28, 2006 3:27 PM

the turkey twizzlers look like fried intestines.
I've always bought lunch to school after my parents got pissed off from paying the school and realized I may be allergic to everything on the menu. So my memory of school food is foggy at best.
Yeah, I hate Vassar ACDC food too. They deep fry all the tofu too!

jeshi / May 28, 2006 6:31 PM

I frickin loved that issue of GR. All the kids had such horribly scarring experiences! That, or they had adventurous friends who wanted to trade. I personally ate a lot of Japanese food in school ( my mother's best friend is a tiny woman from Okinawa, who claims that I'm actually her daughter ), which got me far more respect than repulsion from my friends. Oh...I could go for some day old gyoza right now.

elaine / May 28, 2006 11:58 PM

The cheese pizza at my elementary school was disturbingly green and rectangular. However, I have been known to declare that cafeteria grilled cheese sandwiches are good because of all that govt butter they use.

I recall that chicken pot pie was my clear favorite for lunch - that and bagels. I don't eat breakfast, so I could never have lasted until 3pm for lunch.

Cat / May 29, 2006 12:05 AM

I am actually on a program initiative to change school lunches in NYC, to be more healthy, have less sodium/fat etc. I loved Jaime's lunch program and thought he was very inspirational. I was very fortunate to attend a progressive private high school where healthy food was offered. I think every child deserves that right.

Jessie / May 29, 2006 12:05 AM

I'm ashamed to say I was one of those kids who wished for a plain sandwich....

Looking back, I was so lucky. I had a grandmother who was a fabulous cook and regularly made homemade sushi with tuna or pork floss or crab stick and a mother who was so determined that we eat healthily that a "treat" often consisted of three, count'em, THREE chips. Individual pieces mind you.

And how I didn't help that I grew up as one of five Asian kids at a small town school and people would point at my lunchbox and ask if I were eating dog.....

bowb / May 29, 2006 5:07 AM

yeah, i watched "school dinners" last year. argh! the nuggets!! jamie oliver was much more likeable in reality-tv-mode than when he's all lovely-jubbly and lisping in his usual cooking shows. we recently got more reality-jamie where he drives through italy to learn how to cook "real" italian food. it was quite watchable, especially when he goes to an ancient monastry and saves the monks from their frozen veg dinners.

the school food was scary innit? much as i like golden deep fried things. i saw a show about american school lunches once, where oone of the vegetable on offer was tomato ketchup, and kids could have a slice of domino's pizza. whuh??

they've just passed a law in australia to stop selling soft drinks in public schools, which is a good start... but oh no! where are the schools gonna get their funding from now?

what a blog you write, robyn. i think you are my favourite.

amie / May 29, 2006 6:57 AM

yay fresh fruit and veges! yeah all of the series was super. as is jamie, he's great to watch, so energetic. and with his family, they are sooo cute. love it.

paradise / May 30, 2006 12:50 AM

your photos, especially the ones of the pancakes, have officially propelled your site into the food porn stratosphere! ;-)
i really enjoy your blog and i can't help but salivate everytime i come for a visit. i've just recently really gotten into food as well and now i'm addicted to the food network. ahhh.
keep up the fantastic posts!

Ani / May 30, 2006 10:23 AM

Your right dinner=lunch. The pioneers used the word dinner for lunch as well. I can't recall how or why dinner became lunch here.

Michelle / May 31, 2006 10:27 AM

I watched the show last year in Australia, and I was shocked to see the food being served. Fast food? For Lunch? Every day?

Back in my high school, due to the ginormous amount of students (7000 and counting), we had two canteens, with a total of 14 or 15 stalls selling food, and most of it was "relatively healthy". Normal asian food, like noodles and rice.(I assume that most of the cooked food had different kinds of chemical flavoring added to them.)But rumour had it that a dead cat had been found in one of the kitchens. We dissected chickens once, and gave the remains to a stall selling malay food. Needless to say, I didn't eat anything from that stall for a week.

I guess kids growing up in asian countries are luckier in the sense that most mothers still can be bothered to cook, but that's slowly changing I guess. Mum still fried up chicken nuggets on a weekly basis when she felt too lazy. Instant noodles were often lunch as i grew older. My point? Argh! Erm...don't feed your kids fast food? Not often anyway.

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