Huntington, WV: With Jamie Oliver Gone, Sponsorship Disappears

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The spotlight is gone. And so is U.S. Foodservice's support for healthy eating in Huntington, West Virginia.

To make real change in America's food culture, the commitment has to be about more than a marketing ploy.

Last year, U.S. Foodservice, one of the country's largest food distributors, jumped at the chance to board the "good-food" bandwagon and burnish its reputation. When celebrity chef Jamie Oliver came to town, it welcomed him—and the cameras—into its warehouses and made clear it could provide fresh, healthy foods at prices the local school system could afford. Then, the company went one step further, offering one year of free food and cleaning supplies worth up to $25,000 to Huntington's Kitchen, the cooking school that Oliver established.

"The health and success of the communities where we operate is essential to our company," Mark Eggerding, senior vice president of U.S. Foodservice, declared at the time.

Hmmm.

The Kitchen pinched pennies in an effort to make the money last, according to its director Jill Moore. But eight months later, with about $5,000 left in the pot, U.S. Foodservice ended its financial support, citing cuts to its marketing budget. The privately held company has about $19 billion in annual revenues.

U.S. Foodservice did not return repeated calls to offices in both West Virginia and its national headquarters outside Chicago.

It's no surprise that the marketing department fuels—and funds—corporate good deeds. But to make real change in America's food culture, the commitment has to be about more than a marketing ploy. Soon after U.S. Foodservice made its donation, its name went up in big letters on the Kitchen's floor-to-ceiling windows that face the sidewalk along Huntington's Third Avenue. Now the money is gone, and the cash-strapped Kitchen has a new bill to pay: scrubbing its windows.

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Jane Black, formerly a food writer at The Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, West Virginia. Learn more at www.janeblack.net.

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