Wed, Mar 31 2010 at 11:36 AM EST
TIME FOR CHANGE: With Oliver’s help, Huntington may change from the nation’s most obese city to its healthiest. (Photo: jonnyvelvet/Flickr)
A 2008 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that Huntington, W. Va., was the most obese city, in the most obese region, in the most obese country in the world. West Virginians in the area lead the nation in frequency of heart disease and diabetes. The release of this statistic was devastating to a culture already stereotyped as “backwards” and “ignorant,” and was hardly welcome publicity for the state. It was this statistic, however, that drew the attention of British chef and health advocate, Jamie Oliver. In 2005, Oliver started the “Feed me better” campaign, which gained government support to help English schoolchildren to make better food choices. He plans to undertake a similar food revolution in the United States, and Huntington is his battleground.
Two weeks ago, ABC launched the premiere of Oliver’s reality TV show, Food Revolution. Oliver sets up base in Huntington to launch an attack on processed foods in elementary school lunches. His theory is that if children are trained early to eat healthy food, they will maintain a healthy lifestyle for the rest of their lives.
As can be expected, Oliver faced a great deal of opposition initially. He was stepping on dangerous territory, and many West Virginians felt that by pointing out the flaws of their food culture, Oliver was implying that they were dumb or ignorant. Oliver, on the other hand, wants this area to be proud that the food revolution began in their town. Huntington, he says, is more than just a statistic, it is a “town, a community, a family,” and he hopes to plant a seed of change that will spread far beyond the setting of the reality TV show.
I admit I was nervous about how the community of Huntington might be presented, but I was incredibly pleased and even inspired by the show’s first episode. Though the show takes place in Huntington, it is very clear that the revolution is aimed at American food culture in general and not just West Virginia. Oliver’s war is not against the habits of one town in particular, but against America’s continued reliance on and acceptance of processed foods. As Oliver goes through a Huntington elementary school’s kitchen, where frozen pizza, frozen chicken nuggets and instant mashed potatoes dominate the menu, he actually begins to get emotional about how far we have removed ourselves from the elements that nourish our bodies. Oliver refers to the school’s freezer as, “an Aladdin’s cave of processed crap.” The sad thing is, elementary school freezers across the nation are probably practically identical to the one in Huntington.
Jamie Oliver’s revolution is a bold social statement that begs us as a nation to take control of what we put into our bodies. What is most brilliant about his initiative is that Oliver meets with individual families and people to start a sort of grassroots revolution. One by one, he is making people understand that although processed foods are accepted by our culture, they are not healthy.
I hope that one day in the near future, Huntington, W. Va., will stand as a proud example of health and vitality. Food Revolution is more than just a reality TV show; it is a social experiment that you don’t want to miss. You can catch new episodes Friday evenings on ABC, or check out the website for episodes that have already aired.