This initial public relations disaster was followed by Oliver’s first trip to Central City Elementary School, where he wanted to shift the students’ lunch plan toward healthier foods. Here, he was waylaid by the cafeteria’s tough-minded head cook, Alice Gue — referred to on the show as “a lean, mean, processed-food cooking machine.” Oliver had assumed at first that Gue would naturally share his attitude toward the food she had been serving. But she was more antagonistic, and prouder of her existing menu, than Oliver had expected.
This first stage of change was most important, it turned out, not for what Oliver taught the town — but for what the town taught him. He assumed a great deal about the town’s receptivity and its nature, underestimating the cumulative power of inertia and collective attitudes. Once he realized that the resistance came from a culture, rather than from individuals, he set out to learn about that culture instead of trying to defeat it outright. As he said at the end of the first episode, Huntington “is not a statistic. It’s a town. It’s a community. It’s a family.”
In subsequent episodes, Oliver moved more deeply into the town’s culture, developing relationships and conducting listening sessions. He eventually opened a storefront called Jamie’s Kitchen in downtown Huntington, where he offered nutrition advice and cooking lessons at no charge.
If you are a CEO or other senior leader seeking to change behavior throughout your organization, you may feel you are on more familiar ground than Jamie Oliver was. You presumably know your company well; you may have grown up in it yourself. Yet your very familiarity with the culture can be as much of an obstacle as Oliver’s outsider status was. Both too much knowledge and too little can lead to incorrect assumptions about the reasons people do what they do.
You must thus examine and explore the culture of your organization, as if seeing it for the first time — to make sure you are not blindsided, as Oliver was at the outset. You can accomplish this with your own counterparts to Oliver’s listening sessions: deep, structured interviews; workshops; and problem-solving groups. This type of inquiry can reveal the existing culture and the specific issues or themes that need to be addressed.
As Oliver got to know the residents of Huntington, he realized he faced a formidable information and education barrier. One class of first graders could not identify a tomato. (They insisted it was a potato.) Others, including many adults, did not know how to use a knife or fork. After years of fast food like hamburgers and pizza, they didn’t have to. Nor did the school cafeteria provide knives or forks; the menu didn’t require them.
Oliver attempted to remake the eating habits of one household, the Edwards family, by talking with them at length about nutrition; he went food shopping with them, loading their home with recipes and fresh ingredients. But when he returned later to their house, he found many of the fresh ingredients uneaten; he also found milkshake containers and other telltale signs of unhealthy food. Providing information was not enough. Oliver had to lead the citizens of Huntington across a threshold of attitude change by addressing their behavior first. So he turned his focus from how they ate to what they ate — and making sure they ate differently.
He began with peas. Perhaps because of the British love for peas, Oliver was determined that the Central City schoolchildren should eat peas for lunch. To accomplish this, he dressed up in a green costume, racing around the school grounds trying to get the kids to engage with him as a pea. He was tireless in his banter and cajoling. He held up two fingers as a peace sign — which he referred to as a “peas” sign. Even if they didn’t quite get it, it made them laugh. He monitored their eating. He used rewards and recognition, handing out stickers after lunch that said “I’ve Tried Something New!” Not every child cooperated, but many peas were eaten — and Oliver had laid the groundwork for further and deeper changes.