Inviting Jamie Oliver to Lunch

We have our work cut out for us as we constantly struggle to keep our students safe, our schools clean, and our teachers employed.
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The Los Angeles Unified School District's recent decision not to welcome the primetime docu-reality series "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" to its lunchrooms and school kitchens does not exactly come as a shock. After all, what could the nation's second-largest school district possibly have to gain by involving itself with a reality TV show?

Last year, Jamie successfully worked with teachers, administrators and parents of 12,000 students in Huntington, West Virginia to help the community get healthier. Now he wants to work with LAUSD's 680,000 students, amidst a district that has been forced to make catastrophic cuts to its budget and teacher jobs, and which still faces monumental problems including a high drop out rate, low test scores, and a broken teacher evaluation system.

I empathize with Superintendent Cortines because I know firsthand some of the challenges he faces. I chair the Board of Directors for MLA Partner Schools, an organization focused on turning around low performing schools in what we call "L.A.'s Promise Neighborhood." We operate two large high schools on a performance contract with LAUSD, serving 6,300 children in one of South L.A.'s most challenged communities. We have our work cut out for us as we constantly struggle to keep our students safe, our schools clean, and our teachers employed.

But nearly 50 percent of the children who live within L.A.'s Promise Neighborhood are obese or close to it. Although LAUSD's modest improvements to its school meal program show progress, the most popular items continue to be processed chicken nuggets, chocolate milk, and contraband junk food. Schools need to fix the food problem just like they need to solve the "bigger" problems. It's a lot to ask, and, admittedly, there isn't an easy solution. But we cannot put this issue on the back burner.

MLA tackles student health head-on in its mission to make all neighborhood children college-ready. MLA's two schools -- West Adams Prep and Manual Arts -- are a showcase of the innovative partnership created by MLA and LAUSD, demonstrating impressive gains in key metrics like attendance, student safety and college readiness. But equally important, our schools are designed into community hubs, partnering with over 50 community groups that collectively offer over 200 free services to students and families.

Student health isn't a sideline issue at MLA. That's why we partner with the California Endowment and St. John's Well Child and Family Center to integrate health care into the school day for all of the ninth graders in L.A.'s Promise Neighborhood. That's why we're rewriting the health curriculum, introducing new forms of physical education, and teaching children and their families about nutrition and healthy cooking. And, that's why I want to listen to what Jamie Oliver has to say.

What does a reality show have to teach us? Well, there are a number of us committed to school reform who happen to believe that Jamie's show might actually have something important to contribute to the way we approach school nutrition.

Jamie has been on a mission for the last five years to improve people's health by getting them to cook with fresh foods. As a result of his "Feed Me Better" campaign in the United Kingdom, the British government added $1 billion to school food budgets and, more recently, his "Food Revolution" campaign in the United States helped persuade Congress to pass the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Jamie's passion and experience are formidable. The fact that they may also make for good television is not our concern. What we care about is changing unhealthy diets and poor eating habits. To the extent that a renowned chef who is also the star of a reality television show can help us do that, the least we can do is invite him to lunch.

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