Huntington, West Virginia, is one of the most unhealthy cities in the United States (according to a 2006 CDC report). For the past couple weeks, I’ve been watching chef Jamie Oliver tackle the city’s health issues in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. But why Huntington? According to the Associated Press:
Nearly half the adults in Huntington’s five-county metropolitan area are obese–an astounding percentage, far bigger than the national average in a country with a well-known weight problem.
Huntington leads in a half-dozen other illness measures, too, including heart disease and diabetes. It’s even tops in the percentage of elderly people who have lost all their teeth (half of them have).
On the show, many Huntington folks are underwhelmed with Oliver. He’s presented by the show’s producers as the interloper, often chided by the villain, a local radio DJ and self-appointed representative of the townspeople. Less than an unwillingness to eat better, the angry DJ seems to represent the community’s unwillingness to change and an immature defensiveness.
Despite vocal protests, the celebrity chef rallies–albeit over the course of several months–the elementary school cooks, the high school students who love their french fries, and the reluctant city officials. In exchange for processed chicken nuggets and sugar-loaded strawberry milk comes local produce and homemade dishes. In fact, Oliver is earnest, funny, and willing to wear a padded green pea costume.
Last Friday’s episode was especially heart-tugging (perhaps even manipulative?) in its presentation of high school kids cooking up a three-course meal for the city’s bigwigs. The cynic in me thought that the roster of student cooks looked a bit like “types,” ala Glee or The Real World (or even The Breakfast Club, for all of us who grew up in 80’s America): the football star, the pretty but damaged popular girl, the outcasts and rebels, all coming together and forgetting their comfortable cliques. Of course, the bleeding heart in me thought the cast of high school cooks was sincere and represented a real desire to grow. When one of the most troubled students joins his buddies in the kitchen after appearing in juvie, you can’t help but admire his headstrong will.
For several months now, I’ve been trying to eat more healthy. It’s a challenge. Trading in processed food for greens and soy milk is a definite change after nearly four decades of binging on greasy pizza, packaged frozen foods, and fried everything (I’m being honest now). Eating better, more local, is a little like learning a new language. Uphill at first, with a necessary commitment and willingness to change.
Let’s hope that, like me, other Americans will choose fresh food over fast food. Jaime Oliver’s fast-paced show–in addition to Michelle Obama’s new Let’s Move! campaign–may contribute to longer and healthier lives.