Jamie Oliver improves Huntington, W.Va.'s eating habits

Jamie Oliver cooks with Huntington, W.Va., residents during a taping of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," a series on ABC.
Jamie Oliver cooks with Huntington, W.Va., residents during a taping of "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," a series on ABC. (Holly Farrell/Associated Press)
By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It's happy-ending time for Huntington, W.Va.: Six-year-olds can now distinguish between tomatoes and potatoes. Cooks are tossing apple-cucumber salads with honey dressing for the lunch line. College students and parents are learning to make omelets and soups in free cooking classes. And Jamie Oliver, the crusading British chef who arrived last fall to help change habits in "the unhealthiest town in America," has apparently won the hearts, minds -- and stomachs -- of the locals.

With the finale of his ABC program this Friday, "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" has officially been televised. But can the six-part, prime-time series help a real revolution take root?

"Reality TV . . . it's like junk food, really. It's a quick fix and it usually has zero depth and it ain't going to help you much in life," the 34-year-old chef said in an interview at Dulles International Airport, where he was en route to London after his final day of filming in West Virginia last week. "But the TV route is so important in this country. TV to this very day is the most important communicator of everything."

As far as Huntington is concerned, Oliver appears to be right. Anyone who has watched the show knows that town officials, parents and students were initially skeptical about Oliver's project. West Virginia, a poor, rural state, is already the butt of too many national jokes, as the locals see it, and they feared they would once again be singled out for ridicule. But residents now say they have embraced Oliver's message. The public schools have made permanent many of the celebrity chef's recommendations. By June, most of the processed food in the district schools will be gone, replaced by Oliver's from-scratch menus, which include dishes such as barbecued chicken and brown rice with carrots, raisins and orange dressing. (Spoiler alert: According to one local official, even Oliver's TV kitchen nemesis, Alice Gue, now "is the number-one proponent" of from-scratch cooking.)

In the broader community, the growing interest in healthful eating has helped spur investors to open a grocery store in the once-down-and-out city center, advocates to form a state food council, and residents to pack a new restaurant, Huntington Prime, that sources its ingredients locally. "There were already things going on. What's happened is that a lot of those things have gained momentum," said Phoebe Patton Randolph, an architect and president of the board of Create Huntington, a nonprofit community group.

Oliver has made notable progress. But the hard work, compromises and setbacks continue after the cameras have disappeared.

The flavored milk that Oliver reviles and banned from the lunch line because it contains four teaspoons of sugar per serving is back, thanks to a ruling from the West Virginia Department of Education's Office of Child Nutrition. (Sugar was deemed a lesser evil than the possibility that students would miss out on the nutrients that milk provides.) And though the goal was to rid school kitchens of all processed foods, some will remain. This year, the source is a freezer full of chicken nuggets, pizza and other items that were ordered long before filming began and must be used up. But there will be more next year, too. Like many school districts, Cabell County, where the program was set, relies on donated foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which does not offer many fresh ingredients. To break even, the district will have to use some processed and canned products, said Rhonda McCoy, director of food services.

The biggest challenge, though, will probably be finding money to continue to fund new programs. Jamie's Kitchen, where Oliver offered free cooking lessons last fall, has been taken over by a local health-care organization and renamed Huntington's Kitchen. So far, it has raised $50,000, but annual expenses are expected to reach $130,000, said Yvonne Jones, the executive director of Ebenezer Medical Outreach, who is overseeing the project. The kitchen continues to offer about a dozen classes per week and is now asking for a suggested donation of $10.

Schools face a similar funding gap. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is dipping into his contingency fund for about $50,000 to pay for new equipment needed to continue the program, such as food processors, salad spinners and storage containers, a spokesman said. But McCoy also needs about $30,000 to complete the training of all her cooks and $66,000 to cover the cost of hiring new cooks who are necessary to produce the more labor-intensive menus.

Fresh ingredients, which generally cost more than their processed counterparts, will be an ongoing expense. During filming at Central City Elementary, meal costs more than doubled, McCoy said, and the production team picked up the bill. To make ends meet, the schools already have axed expensive items such as the hydroponic vegetables and antibiotic- and hormone-free ground beef that Oliver insisted upon. But even conventionally raised meat will boost prices. A whole cooked chicken, for example, costs 10 cents more per serving than the processed nuggets previously on the menu. It's a significant increase when the total budget per meal, including labor and equipment, is $2.85 per student.

"We don't have all the answers at this point. But we're very proud to be involved in the project," said Jedd Flowers, Cabell County Schools director of communications. "We have started a national conversation in terms of what can happen."

What can happen is quantifiable, Oliver said. Since 2005, when the chef's first exposé of school food, "Jamie's School Dinners," was broadcast in England, the British government established the first-ever nutrition standards for school food. It also allocated about $1 billion to help pay for better-quality ingredients, new kitchen equipment and cafeterias, and staff training.

Critics continued to balk, however. After the new standards banned hamburgers and french fries from the menus, students complained, and participation in meals dropped off. In the town of Rotherham, in northern England, several mothers began passing contraband junk food through the school gates. (Oliver responded by filming a new television series in Rotherham, "Jamie's Ministry of Food," where he set up a kitchen that offered free cooking lessons to residents.)

But meal uptake, as it is known in Britain, is again on the rise, according to the latest national figures. Oliver's case that school food matters was bolstered in December 2009 by a report from Oxford researchers that revealed that in the borough of Greenwich, where "Jamie's School Dinners" had been filmed, absentee rates dropped by 15 percent and the number of pupils passing standardized tests in English and science improved by between 3 and 8 percent.

It's a process that takes time, Oliver said. "Kids don't want to learn English or math, either. They want to play Nintendo. All I can tell you is that it takes six to eight months. . . . There's no on-off button. I could have put foie gras and oysters and langoustines in there, and you would have had issues with students liking it or not liking it."

Oliver's post-series strategy in the United States is similar to the one he followed in England. He has launched an online petition calling for better food in schools and programs that will "keep cooking skills alive." Already, he has gathered about 365,000 signatures; "We'll get up to a million," he said, "don't you worry." Oliver said he hopes to present the document to the president and to Michelle Obama, who has launched her own initiative, Let's Move, to fight childhood obesity.

Among other things, Oliver is drawing up a blueprint for a franchise of cooking centers, like the one in Huntington, across the United States. He also has raised money for a mobile kitchen to travel the country offering cooking lessons. (Famed restaurant designer David Rockwell has signed on to design the truck.)

With help from TED, a nonprofit group that this year awarded Oliver its $100,000 annual prize for an exceptional idea, he plans to develop a series of marketing campaigns. The first will aim to educate families about healthful eating. Others will be designed to challenge corporate food companies, which he believes are too quick to blame obesity on sedentary lifestyles; health-care companies, which he believes should invest in preventive medicine; and the government, which he believes should spend more money on good food for children.

"The amount of money being injected into the system is embarrassing and dangerous," Olilver said, referring to the additional $4.5 billion that Congress has proposed to improve child nutrition programs over the next decade. "This is America's darkest moment in health. And that's all you've got?"

Speaking in such blunt, politically unconstrained terms may well end up being Oliver's main role in the U.S. campaign once the show is over. Think of him as Michelle Obama's evil twin.

She told the Grocery Manufacturers Association: "All of you come to this with the right heart and the right vision and the right passion. My only urging is that we go faster, we go farther together." Oliver said: "They're all about margin and quirks and jingles. But I do think they'll start paying attention. Not because they care about the kids, to be frank, because they don't. But because they care about the dollar."

Obama has said: "Our kids didn't do this to themselves." Oliver said: "Parents can be the most positive, powerful force in a country or they can be disgusting, backstabbing traitors. When little Johnny comes home and says, 'I didn't get my nugget today,' it's wrong to say 'Oh, all right, darling,' and give him some [expletive] horrible Lunchable and a pack of potato chips and a luminous drink."

In the end, Oliver said, he will do whatever is necessary: "One thing you have to learn about me is that I do not think I am a superman. I do not think I'm special. I'm in a position that I'm using. I believe in people. I believe in local ambassadors of change. I genuinely think there is an energy right now. It's the time to put some common-sense things in place."

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