Reality TV strikes again, this time plucking British Chef Jamie Oliver from his comfy home country and dropping him into Huntington, West Virginia - the so-called unhealthiest city in America. But is he prepared for the challenge ahead?
When I refer to the challenge, I don't mean getting the residents of Huntington to adopt better habits. I mean penetrating the "reshapping & remaking" genre of reality television, which is already full of contenders like The Biggest Loser, Dance Your Ass Off, DietTribe, and Celebrity Fit Club: Boot Camp.
Still, it appears the producers are pressing on:
Oliver came to Huntington last month and the show is taping in West Virginia's second-largest city throughout the fall. Months before it airs, though, the show has opened still-fresh wounds from an Associated Press story last year that used federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data to proclaim the five-county Huntington metropolitan area the country's fattest and unhealthiest.
The town, for its part has fretted a bit about it's image in the world, noting that "the world's fattest town" isn't quite a label that anyone wants to adopt.
"All the years of statistics don't strike home as much as the threat of a national TV audience getting this perception about Huntington," said [Don] Perdue, who is chairman of the House of Delegates Health and Human Resources committee.
Even so, Perdue is worried about the show.
"If it's accurate and not positive, that's our fault," the Wayne County Democrat said. "If it's inaccurate and negative, that's their fault."
However, this fluffy article isn't sharing with us the full story. In the New York Times Magazine, a six-page feature on Oliver shows what he's really trying to accomplish. Oliver didn't come to the states to find the fattest people to put on display - he is coming to help expand his people first food revolution.
The article opens:
On his first day in Huntington, W. Va., Jamie Oliver spent the afternoon at Hillbilly Hot Dogs, pitching in to cook its signature 15-pound burger. That's 10 pounds of meat, 5 pounds of custom-made bun, American cheese, tomatoes, onions, pickles, ketchup, mustard and mayo. Then he learned how to perfect the Home Wrecker, the eatery's famous 15-inch, one-pound hot dog (boil first, then grill in butter). For the Home Wrecker Challenge, the dog gets 11 toppings, including chili sauce, jalapeños, liquid nacho cheese and coleslaw. Finish it in 12 minutes or less and you get a T-shirt.
So much for local color. Earlier that day, Oliver met with a pediatrician, James Bailes, and a pastor, Steve Willis. Bailes told him about an 8-year-old patient who was 80 pounds overweight and had developed Type 2 diabetes. If the child's diet didn't change, the doctor said, he wouldn't live to see 30. Willis told Oliver that he visits patients in local hospitals several days a week and sees the effects of long-term obesity firsthand. Since he can't write a prescription for their resulting illnesses, he said, all he can do is pray with them.
Last year, an Associated Press article designated the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan area as the unhealthiest in America, based on its analysis of data collected in 2006 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half the adults in these five counties (two in West Virginia, two in Kentucky and one in Ohio) were obese, and the area led the nation in the incidence of heart disease and diabetes. The poverty rate was 19 percent, much higher than the national average. It also had the highest percentage of people 65 and older who had lost their teeth - nearly 50 percent.
In the midst of a town battling various ailments, Oliver arrives dispensing more than just solid food advice - he deeply appreciates the transformative power that the ideas of simple food and home have made in his life:
Oliver got personal with his series "Jamie's Kitchen," based on the Fifteen Foundation, which he created in 2002. Each year it sponsors 15 (give or take a few) young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those with criminal records or a history of drug abuse, and trains them in the restaurant business. To kick-start the program and to finance Fifteen, the upscale London restaurant that would employ them, he put up his own house as collateral - without telling his wife. [...]
If he were just a professional do-gooder, Oliver, who is 34, would be a bore. But food has given his life focus and meaning since childhood, and he has honored it ever since. [...]
In last year's U.K. series, "Jamie's Ministry of Food," Oliver expanded his reach past the school system into people's homes. He chose Rotherham, an industrial town in northern England with a high rate of obesity and related illnesses, where 20 percent of the working-age population was on public assistance. He built a community center where residents could learn to cook inexpensively for their families while instilling the idea that healthful eating is not a luxury. "They thought that cooking a meal and feeding it to your family was for posh people," he said. Some participants in the show had never even had a kitchen table. They ate takeout food on their floors.
That project has proved a success and the perfect model for Oliver's mission in Huntington. The community center here will be called Jamie's Kitchen and will teach both adults and children the basic skills for cooking healthful, economical meals at home. Oliver will also work with local schools on eliminating junk food in vending machines and in cafeterias, replacing reheated processed foods with meals cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients. But there is no guarantee of success.
The reporter Alex Witchel, points out that Jamie's enthusiasm for food does not always translate to success. Witchel finds out from Oliver that only half of the schools from the flagship program are functioning properly - there are issues with getting school staff properly trained and willing to stick with the program. In addition, the children, once exposed to the wonders of eating fresh, unprocessed food, still revert back to many of their old ways once the pressure is off. Near the end of the piece, Witchel skeptically points out the residents of Huntington don't seem to be interested in being healthier as much as they want to be on television.
However, I think that Oliver has it exactly right. When he speaks to the people of Huntington, he's polite and hopeful, explaining that the problem they face has a solution. Changing food culture from one of convenience to one of health will not happen overnight. People need time to acclimate to cooking, to the taste of food that isn't injected with salt/fat/sugar/hormones, that change in lifestyle. One of my larger critiques with the current food movement is that is is concerned with ideals and absolutes, and doesn't take into consideration the role food plays in people's lives and cultures. However, Oliver, with his less than stellar beginnings, and commitment to people, does get it. And it shows he speaks:
Oliver picked up the mike. "Hi, guys," he began. "Some say this is the most unhealthy town in America. We're going to spend the next few days getting under the skin of the problem, and we're asking families, individuals, schools and churches to spread the word. Here, the odds are against you, you live an unhealthy life and die young. That's what the report said. So, this is not a sparkly, pretty show. It's about finding local ambassadors for change."
He asked people to raise their hands if friends or family were affected by obesity and bad health. Almost every hand went up. Oliver nodded. "What do you think the problems are?" Among the answers were: too much processed food in school cafeterias; a need for better prenatal nutrition; a call to stop putting Kool-Aid in toddlers' sippy cups (earlier, Oliver heard about infants' bottles filled with Coca-Cola); suggestions that restaurants offer smaller portions and that children's menus offer alternatives to burgers and fries.
Oliver took it in. "This isn't a freak show here," he said. "You're only a few percent away from the national average. Every child should be taught to cook in school, not just talk about nutrition all day. Good food can be made in 15 minutes. This could be the first generation where the kids teach the parents." That earned a round of applause.
"I got a billion dollars out of the British government and put it into the school system," he went on. "But it's still in transition, it's not all glossy yet. When parents get angry anything can happen. So I'll need your help. Hopefully over the next few months, we'll do some really good things together."
‘Fattest city' in U.S. braces for reality TV show [AP/MSNBC]
The Biggest Loser [NBC
Dance Your Ass Off [Oxygen]
Celebrity Fit Club: Boot Camp [VH1]
Putting America's Diet on a Diet [NY Times]