Jamie Oliver brings nutrition to Sacramento schools

Celebrity chef rides tour bus into Sacramento Charter High School

Politicians and regional leaders listen as chef Jamie Oliver explains how badly California does when it comes to kids’ nutrition and access to clean water.

Politicians and regional leaders listen as chef Jamie Oliver explains how badly California does when it comes to kids’ nutrition and access to clean water.


The morning before British chef and TV personality Jamie Oliver rode into downtown Sacramento on a 50-foot-long tour bus, Mayor Kevin Johnson sat in bed reading about the culinary superstar on his phone.

“This dude is cool,” he told his wife, Michelle Rhee. “I have a boy crush on this guy.”

“Well, I have a crush on him, too,” Rhee shot back.

“What do you mean?” Johnson asked.

“He’s The Naked Chef,” Rhee said.

The mayor told this anecdote this past Tuesday morning before introducing Oliver at a food event in a parking lot on K and 15th streets. More than 100 food enthusiasts converged to see Oliver and listen to him discuss the need for better nutrition for kids and in American schools.

The chef, known for his many cooking shows, including Food Revolution on ABC, will be in Sacramento for the next month teaching Sacramento Charter High School students how to prepare healthier meals.

Oliver boasts a track record of exposing the dark, unhealthy side of young kids’ eats. He’s best known for shining the spotlight on “pink slime,” an additive to hamburger that, until recently, was included in billions of dollars of meat consumed each year.

The chef also revealed other flagrant violations to human health in everyday eats, including the exponential amount of sugar and artificial sweeteners in flavored milk at elementary schools, which have since mostly been phased out.

Now, he wants to reform food deserts and bring good eats to poorer schools and underserved neighborhoods, including Sacramento’s Oak Park.

“Something as simple as food and having access to food … is a human-rights issue around the world,” he explained, adding that 3 million California children don’t even have access to clean water.

The chef’s Big Rig Teaching Kitchen—a rock ’n’ roll-size tour bus emblazoned with his name and mission—will park at Sacramento High for the coming weeks, where kids will spend time cultivating and cooking healthy meals, instead of just microwaving Hot Pockets after class. He’s partnering with chef Alice Waters, of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant, and her Edible Schoolyard Project.

Mayor Johnson, who oversaw the charterization of Sac High as founder of St. Hope, took the opportunity during the event to champion the city’s sustainable-farming résumé and “farm-to-fork”agenda, which includes a new vision of prioritizing local produce. He said 98 percent of what is farmed locally leaves the region.

“Our goal by 2020 is to consume 20 percent [of local produce],” he pledged.

Oliver said he likes the idea of Sacramento and California, as a major agriculture hub, being the foundation for reform. “If you’re going to make change, this is where it starts,” he said.

There are, of course, obstacles. Kitchen space and basic cooking equipment is needed at most schools, which are already underfunded. And even the farm bill—which House Republicans have held hostage since the previous incarnation, expired last year and still has yet to pass Congress—impacts access to nutrition in Sacto schools.

“But we’ve come a long way,” explained Patrick Kennedy, a Sacramento City Unified School District board member who heads a task force that works to get more nutrition in cafeterias. SCUSD serves 50,000 meals a day, more than 70 percent of those are to low-income students.

These meals haven’t always been lean, mean and green. Four years ago, for instance, there were no salad bars at city schools; now, every cafeteria has one. The district now spends up to $1.1 million on produce—most of it grown within 110 miles of the city—as opposed to $343,000 a few years back. And funding from Measure R will allow for the district to build a centralized kitchen to cook healthier eats for kids.

“Nutrition needs to be something [kids] are used to seeing, from kindergarten on up,” Kennedy told SN&R.

A handful of local chefs, including Patrick Mulvaney and Jay C. Veregge of Ten22, made an appearance at Oliver’s event, which was made possible because of a TED prize and a grant from the California Endowment (touring big rigs aren’t cheap).

“This truck has been in some of the most distressed, underserved neighborhoods in California,” explained Dr. Robert Ross, who heads the Endowment.

And now it will be in Oak Park, “a food desert where we need it the most,” Kennedy added.