Exploring Human Potential

The American Food Revolution: Jamie Oliver Leads The Way

Mike Magee

Last night, my wife Trish forced me to sit down and watch British chef Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution”. (1) He’s on a mission to change the way America eats. And he has some experience doing just that . His 4 part series in the UK unlocked the purse strings to the tune of 1 billion dollars. (2) His target? The British school lunch system. His answer? Fresh and local, and no more junk in the vending machines.

Now it’s on to the US, and he’s begun in Huntington, WV. Why? Because an AP report of CDC data identified it as a pretty unhealthy town. It indicates that the nationwide obesity median percentage is 26.3. West Virginia has 30.3%. The Huntington Area has 32.4%. (3)

You should take a moment to watch Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution not for the recipes but for the interesting way Jamie mobilizes teens in the effort. He dismantles our bias that reforming our food culture is an unattainable goal. Not that this is an easy nut to crack. We eat out a lot, our portion sizes are huge, we’re unaware or unconcerned with what’s actually in our food, and our habits are reinforced by everything around us.

But Jamie isn’t the first food guy to see pay dirt in what is possible. Consider the propblem with super-sizing food portions. The super-sizing trend that’s now commonplace in fast-food chains and

in traditional restaurants seems to be traceable back to the 1960s. It’s difficult to pin-point an actual

starting point, but credit often goes to a McDonald’s executive named David Wallerstein. As a theater

manager in Chicago in the 1960s, he realized that theater patrons were often too embarrassed to buy

two normal-sized bags of popcorn for fear of appearing gluttonous.  But when given the option of one

giant bag, equivalent to two bags and marketed as a value purchase, customers responded.

Wallerstein later took this insight to McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, who applied the strategy to French

fries, and we were off and running. (4)

The economics that continue to make this possible include the fact that adding 25% more fries

costs only a few additional cents, but the slightly larger size sells at a significantly higher price and

still appears to the consumer as a “good deal.” As it turns out, size equals value in the average

American’s eyes. And the cost of food, believe it or not, represents only one-third of most restaurants’

fixed costs.  The rest goes to labor, advertising, franchise fees, rent and energy costs. (4,5)

Richard Snead , CEO of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, owner of the T.G.I. Friday’s chain believes the situation has gone too far and a consumer wave is emerging that will demand food portion sanity.  In a brave and closely watched experiment, Friday’s is offering “Right Size” portions that are about two-thirds the size of the usual serving. Snead says he firmly believes that the consumer is demanding a change, but, in his words, “I’ll be honest with you, it’s scary.” (4)

It’s scary because, if Americans believe “more is more,” they have also rather consistently felt

that “less is less.” Restaurants supporting smaller portion sizes will not only have to sell the idea of

giving customers less food, but must also manage to make up for the lost revenue hidden in those

super-sized “value” meals.

Snead believes part of the answer must come from marketing, information support, and value

pricing in reverse.  Thus, Friday’s is heavily advertising 10 menu items at the smaller size with a 30%

savings. (6)   Several years into the experiment, the menu items remain and competitor Applebee’s is now advertising 550 calorie meals. (7) So something must be working. What Jamie would tell you is creating a Food Revolution has to begin with the kids. And he has them not only eating better food but also cooking it. Food activism is what it is. And as with tobacco cessation, if you want to challenge America’s unhealthy adult behaviors, you do well to enlist their kids in the revolution.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1. Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution”. ABC.

2. Jamie Oliver on Ophra: I’ve Upset Alot Of People With Food Revolution. Huffington Post.

3. CDC Obesity Report.

4. Martin A. Will Diners Still Swallow This? The New York Times. March 25, 2007.

5. TGI Friday’s Restaurants Take Leadership Role with Portion Control. Available at:

6. Restaurant Report: Strategic Positioning of a Restaurant. “What Should Your Food Cost

Percentage Be?” Available at:

7. Applebee’s 550 Calorie Meal.

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