Don’t be surprised if you see the following hashtag trending across social media starting
Friday this morning: #FRD2013. What is #FRD2013, you ask? That’s Food Revolution Day 2013, Jamie Oliver’s annual attempt to rally communities around the world to celebrate their relationship with food. It’s a noble effort from a chef and restaurateur who’s seriously passionate about food — cooking it, eating it, enjoying it.
Oliver’s erstwhile Food Revolution show on American TV stirred mixed feelings in this country; telling people they’re eating poorly and trying to get them to eat better is a tricky business. Food Revolution Day has had more of an impact thus far; last year’s event inspired groups in more than 60 countries to take part, with cooking demos and all sorts of group activities. There’s a helpful search by ZIP code on the FRD2013 site to find ways to join the Revolution.
The idea of organizing communities around the idea of eating better is simple, smart, efficient — classic Jamie Oliver. He’s helped millions of people get comfortable in the kitchen, and he’s more passionate than ever about it. Here, we chat with the guy we first met as The Naked Chef about Food Revolution Day, his recent push with Food Tube — his freewheeling YouTube channel, which in its first few months has attracted 200,000+ subscribers; it’s live today with news about FRD2013 — and the challenge of getting kids psyched about eating seasonal, fresh food.
What do you have planned for Food Revolution?
Food Revolution has really started to be an excuse for food activists and people passionate about food—moms, dads, craftspeople, artisans, chefs — all around the world to get involved on the same day at the same time and hopefully steal a few headlines [in the] local and national media. We had a go last year and we got into 62 countries, [hosted] thousands of events. It was all about celebrating food and passing information on. We’re here in the UK this year — we’re having a massive festival and a street party.
How did it go last year. What did the different groups do?
The great thing about last year is that everyone did their own event differently. We were doing events from England, Australia, New York to Sierra Leone, Asia, Brazil, Mexico. We just want people to do whatever they feel is relevant in their local area.
What are some of the positives you’ve taken out of the progress in food since you became more of a good food advocate?
Food and farming is massively on the agenda of many, many more countries. When we started Food Revolution in America five years ago, they were definitely quite a long way behind what was going on in England. And I’d say — even though it’s uncomfortable for some people — I’d say probably America has overtaken England now. I think England’s slowed down and needs a foot up its ass again.
Do you think governments are doing enough to help people get better access to food?
It’s interesting how different governments and different times reveal different sets of strengths and weaknesses. Let’s be really honest: certainly England, Australia, America, Mexico are on their knees from the effects of ill health and the cost of ill health. When times are really bad — and they really are — the hopeful thing is that [governments] can be creative and start engaging with local communities. That’s starting to happen. The small local groups are starting to become more powerful in the States. That’s kind of what Food Revolution is tapping into. Food Revolution Day is literally just an excuse. We’re not creating Food Revolution “soldiers.” What we’re really doing is just giving parochial, local food lovers the excuse to focus for one day and have a little bit of a louder shout and bring extra people together.
What are some of the challenges of convincing Americans to eat better?
Really importantly: I’m not eating sushi every day, and, uh, biodynamic leaves. I think I have a fairly regular diet. Yes, I try hard for it to be as fresh as possible. For me, I’m really passionate about any public in the world being streetwise and knowledgeable about food. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to take anything specific away from any individual. When you arm the public with good information they make better choices, and without question, in too many countries — especially in America — the labeling laws are shit. What can be said on a pack or on an advert is absolutely disgraceful.
So you think the food industry is being misleading?
I think the level of honesty in the food industry, certainly from the processed food industry point of view, is dreadful. The structure of commodities in the USDA is wrapped up in the old politics of years ago, and linked in to how many pieces of grain every child in the country has to have a week is just guaranteeing that you have chubby kids. For me it’s less about saying to an American, “You can’t have a burger,” because it’s not about that. It’s about: which burger are you going to have?
Food Revolution Day is a grassroots movement. Do you think social media has helped or actually held back your progress?
I mean, is social media a positive thing? There’s more chance in America of the truth coming through good sources of social media than on TV, because there’s not a culture of documentaries and exposés, it’s not as easy to find out where your chicken or where your egg comes from or which franchise or brand does X, Y and Z. Everything’s very litigious, so the conventional mainstream media is a littlie bit polished, a little bit bought out and often funded by the people causing harmful problems. For me, social media, sharing something on YouTube — if it’s from a reliable source, obviously — you’ve got much more chance of being more edgy and in the know.
How did you use social media to promote Food Revolution Day last year?
We had zero budget and we got into over 60 countries and [had] thousands of events and that was only because of social media. And what was beautiful was that while pictures were coming in [along with] people’s expressions of what they were doing in their communities, is that you realize how communities all around the world want to share. Whether it was in England or America where we’ve got problems of obesity, or in Sierra Leone or parts of Africa which have problems with hunger or access, or frankly, parts of Los Angeles, which also have problems with access next to some of the healthiest and fittest people and best food in the world. For me, it’s all about information and sharing and making the public more streetwise.
You’ve embraced technology in other ways as well. I’ve noticed that you’ve been heavily promoting your new YouTube channel Food Tube a lot.
It’s just something we’re playing with at the moment. As weeks go by we’re putting more and more energy into it and trying to work out what people want and what they’re reacting to. The feedback has grown very fast from nothing into something, and [we’re] trying to focus on how people use YouTube and how they share it and subscribe — and like it and comment on it.
What appeals to you about YouTube?
I think what’s quite interesting is seeing YouTube start going from being really funny stuff that’s disgusting to useful bits of TV. What’s really great — we’re going to do a recipe next week where there’s two endings and the audience gets to choose which way they go. For me, I’m just trying to work out what’s the best use of all the options that you have online and what’s the best way to listen to the audience — but also, when’s the best time to ignore them because you know better. I think there’s a very fine line. I’m not sure what the perfect blend is yet but I’m trying to learn.
OK, turning back to eating better. You have four children. With your own kids, what do you talk about when it comes to food?
We don’t hard sell anything, we don’t push anything. Yes, they like to cook and they like to get involved. But they do it on their own. Obviously for a lot of families that maybe didn’t grow up in a family around food that’s a very different scenario for them. There’s lots of young parents who grew up eating shit that don’t want the same for their kids. We try to give them as many excuses to fall in love with it themselves and pass it on to their kids.
What advice would you give to parents trying to instill good food choices in their children?
At home and in the supermarket, let your kids make lots of choices. Get them to make choices about what you’re buying for the family. Sit down and plan online or in books — like, What do you want to have this week? — and get them involved. There’s not a rule book that fits every kind of child, because even my kids have good days and bad days. But generally, just keeping a watch on the stuff like the cookies and candies and not having it available that they can rampage whenever they fancy — not stopping it, but keeping an eye on that — is really important. [And] Enjoying restaurants. Kids learn so much by going to restaurants and making choices.
What about farmers markets?
You don’t even have to buy anything from a farmer’s market to benefit from a farmer’s market. I took a couple of friends down to the farmer’s market the last time I was in Los Angeles and they’d never gone. There’s goats there and [farmers] are selling goat’s cheese and you can smell stuff and pick stuff and eat stuff. If you went there once a month for your kids’ childhood, those kids are going to grow up so much more aware than your average kid. Use the farmer’s markets, definitely.
Food Revolution Day 2013 is this Friday, May 17. More information is at foodrevolutionday.com.