Since November 2010, when I started working with adolescents in the Detroit area tackling childhood obesity, television shows that deal with weight loss and healthy eating have become more interesting. I diligently watched The Biggest Loser and similar shows to re-examine the tactics they use and how successful they were.
More recently I’ve been caught up in Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” because what children and adolescents eat at school is a critical piece if the current trends of obesity are going to be reversed. I’ve been very interested in Jamie Oliver’s attempt to become a healthy food “rockstar” from the UK (sorry Jamie, you can’t compete with First Lady Michelle Obama). Watching the most recent season in Los Angeles, I can’t tell you how many times I yelled at the screen about how ineffective Jamie’s tactics were or how naive he was going up against an institutionalized system.
I don’t doubt Jamie’s good intentions or his passion for the work, but if this is going to be a real revolution then there needs to be some basic understandings of behavioral change and social change as well as community engagement. I’m not sure if this is just a case of making good TV by “making noise” vs. making social change by public health, but there is room for improvement.
With the recent release of new cigarette packaging and the tactics used on Jamie Oliver’s show, it has become obvious that many people disregard research in lieu of “making noise as public health.” Any first year public health student (or someone in close proximity) could tell you that the “Health Belief Model” (HBM) of making people change their habits by highlighting fears no longer works, especially among young people. The HBM relies on scare tactics, some of the best example are from old posters from the 1940-50s that feature skeletons, sharks, and death if you don’t immunize your child, cover your cough, etc. The posters and messages worked for the time period when people were scared of new health issues and followed the messages, but we live in a different time. People don’t respond to scare tactics or negative messages. This is true across the board: in politics, with non-profits, and especially within public health interventions.
The scare tactics that Jamie uses, predictably, have minimal impact on changing people’s minds or getting more people involved. People prefer to be told what is going right or what can easily be done to make things better. Messages that empower individuals and reinforce positive behaviors are more likely to receive a respond. People want to know that they have the ability to make the changes themselves. When Jamie has a classroom discussion with adults who are facing health problems as a result of their past bad eating habits and lack of activity he fails to realize earlier that this is something the teens are facing already with their own family members. Studies have shown that young people respond even less to HBM tactics like these, largely because out of all age groups young people like to know that they have control of their lives – and they do!
Tactics for Social Change
I know its a TV show, but one man cannot make a revolution happen. Any community organizer will tell you that it takes many hands and years to make real and lasting changes to systems and structures that are doing harm. Jamie Oliver stands in a great position to include more people, spread awareness, and organize communities to work together to change their political and educational systems for better school health. However, that is not what happens. Jamie is always surprised by the low turnout and minimal impact of filling a bus with sugar or getting upset with the LAUSD superintendent. Telling parents that they are doing everything wrong won’t create community buy-in.
It isn’t until the final episode that Jamie encounters a group of parents protesting high sugar flavored milk in the schools that a first real attempt to meet people where they are happens. There are many people who want a food revolution and they are already doing the hard work. The final episode is also where Jamie brings together a group of top chefs in LA to run a competition with school cooking teams. This is a great example of the necessary coalition building and community engagement that needed to happen closer to step one.
If you want to change the policies of structure of a system, then you can’t start at the top. The superintendent, as we saw, has the power to kick people out, but not change whole policies. Jamie needed to start by building relationships with people within the system who have more power to push for change. The cafeteria workers would have been a great start. When Jamie finally met some of them, they were overjoyed with his message and could have been a big force for change in food preparation. The superintendent wasn’t on board, but maybe one of the Board members was sympathetic to the food revolution message and could have been an important ally inside. You have to work on smaller targets before you can take on your primary target.
Building a coalition of people both inside and outside the system that you want to change is critical to making real social change. Jamie kept trying to take on his primary target, the superintendent, as an outsider with no community backing. You have to start with the hard organizing work of bringing together other influential community members, workers in the system, and individuals with power inside the system in order to effectively push for change.
Throughout the whole season it was painfully obvious that the community wasn’t behind Jamie’s antics, but there weren’t very many opportunities for collaboration. Many of the points I want to make about community engagement are already listed above, but I do have one key ingredient that was missing in Jamie’s outreach.
Listening. From Jamie’s first show in LA he was telling people what was wrong. He used a series of scare tactics about school meat by waving inedible raw pieces of cow in parents’ faces. It was gross and it made a point, but it didn’t give anyone the opportunity to get involved.
Thinking back between the first show and the final show, if Jamie (or his crew) had taken the time to LISTEN and find people who were already championing the cause of better school food then he might have had a more successful season.
Jamie ended this season by saying, “It’s not about me. […] We all gotta start stirring the pot.” I have more hope for Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution after the final show where he did some community listening, some great community engagement, and even some coalition building. Maybe he is even beginning to recognize that the problem isn’t all on his televised shoulders, but it is shared across the community – and they want change too.
Here are a few improvements to tactics that could revolutionize the food revolution:
- LISTEN to a community before acting on their behalf
- Focus on systems change, not just people in power
- Practice patience: the problem wasn’t created overnight, its not going to go away overnight
- Use inclusive tactics: don’t reprimand or scare