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TV chef Jamie Oliver shut out of L.A. school cafeterias

January 11, 2011 |  3:17 pm

Chef and TV personality Jamie Oliver is bringing his “Food Revolution” to Southern California, talking to families who might participate in his spring reality TV series and opening a kitchen in West Los Angeles.

But he bemoans that he’s been shut out of L.A.’s public school cafeterias.

“I can’t get my foot into a single school. Which is a bit of a shame really,” he said by telephone Tuesday. “It just doesn’t seem in the interest of the public really. It’s not a great start for me, to be honest.”

His goal, he said, is to get people eating more fresh food and to improve their health. His “Feed Me Better” campaign looked at British school food, and last year ABC’s “Food Revolution” won an Emmy for its first season, which was set in schools and homes in Huntington, W.Va.

Oliver planned to speak to the Los Angeles school board Tuesday, during the time allotted for public comments. On Wednesday, he opens “Jamie’s Kitchen” in Westwood, where he said free cooking classes will be offered. And he is a keynote speaker Saturday at the annual meeting of the California School Nutrition Assn.

Whether he is allowed into a school or not, he said, he plans to work with families in their homes and with supermarkets and fast-food purveyors for episodes in a series to begin sometime in the spring.

Oliver speculated that the Los Angeles Unified School District refused his request to set his show in its cafeterias because officials may have feared how it would look on television. But he said his work has been “honorable,” and he came to Los Angeles with no preconceptions about its school food.

“Ultimately, I still think what happens in schools in food is an incredible weapon or problem in terms of the obesity epidemic,” Oliver said.

An L.A. Unified spokesman Monday said there is no chance for a change of heart.

“Reality TV has a formula. You either have to have drama or create conflict to be successful. We’re not interested in either,” Robert Alaniz said in an e-mail.

There certainly was drama and conflict in Huntington as Oliver cajoled cafeteria workers and met with families to try to reform eating habits. But even before Oliver went to Huntington, the district was committed to school food reform, and now most meals are cooked from scratch, said district spokesman Jedd Flowers.

“We want to be on the right side of history,” Flowers said.

Change has not been easy, however. "We’re having some trouble getting the kids to eat the food," Flowers said. "It’s a change that’s going to take some time.”

At the start of the school year last fall, more children were taking their food to school and “unfortunately, generally not a healthy lunch,” he said.

“We're hoping that, over time, these numbers will improve as students begin to accept the healthier menu items,” he said.

The Huntington district has 12,700 children, and about half of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. In Los Angeles, 80% of the 680,000 students qualify.

And unlike in Los Angeles, where many school meals are made in central kitchens, almost all of Huntington’s schools have working kitchens, Flowers said.

In Los Angeles, affluent Westwood was chosen for the TV series' kitchen because of its centrality and convenience, production sources said. Oliver moved his family to Southern California, but his children will not be eating L.A. Unified food. They will attend private school.

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-- Mary McVean

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