Many concerned Huntingtonians, however, put the promise of fame aside and gathered to challenge this reputation. "It was all based on something that's not a fact," said Doug Sheils, the director of marketing and public relations at Cabell Huntington Hospital. When Sheils read why Oliver had come to his town in the first place, he became a self-proclaimed "media watchdog."
Sheils clarified that the CDC survey does not actually rank cities, and that the survey data referred to the five-county region that surrounds Huntington, and which includes parts of Ohio and Kentucky. Not only is the obesity rate in Huntington nowhere near 50 percent—as both a recent Gallup-Healthways study and the USDA's Obesity Atlas testify—but Cabell County, where Huntington is located, actually has the second lowest adult obesity rate in the area. Sheils said Stobbe misinterpreted the statistics and then drew unfair conclusions.
"We weren't trying to deny that we have a problem, but if you look at all the articles and blogs talking about the show, it makes it seem like Huntington is from the bar theme of Star Wars," Sheils said. "It's not—it's a beautiful town with wonderful people."
Misconstrued data wasn't the only thing Huntington residents had to deal with. Just days after ABC aired a preview of its show—not even a full episode—many Americans proved themselves poor cheerleaders for the West Virginia underdogs.
When I called the elementary school where a significant portion of the show takes place, the principal, Patrick O'Neal, sounded unusually somber. "There were some bad things said about us in today's paper and we're all reeling from it," he said. Understandably, the school cooks didn't want to talk either. I dug up the letters to the editor from the local Herald-Dispatch that O'Neal had referenced. From finger-wagging to disgust to condescending offers of prayer, there wasn't an encouraging word in the bunch:
I am embarrassed to say that I'm from Huntington. It makes me sick to think that my stepchildren have to go to the school he visited, due to the juvenile attitudes of the cooks and the principal.
- Brandi Blankenship, South Point, Ohio
I don't know where to start with my comments of horror ... especially the employees and administration of the school district ... And I thought I lived in a backward city in Illinois.
- Carol Nelson, Rockford, Ill.
A second round of letters was published the next day, demonstrating a slightly broader scope of opinions. Many reactions, however, like this one, continued the negativity:
I could not believe the self-righteousness, the rudeness, and the hostility that your people displayed. I was appalled and disturbed. ... Huntington, West Virginia, doesn't need Jamie Oliver to come along and portray your community as ignorant; you all are doing that just fine by yourselves.
-Karin Riccio, Shelton, Conn.
Still, although Oliver might have been slow to win the hearts (and stomachs) of locals, he eventually gathered support for his mission. As Sheils got to know Oliver, he became one of the chef's most faithful converts. He said Oliver finally got people talking about their health issues, and more importantly, acting on them. Sheils's hospital eventually chipped in $80,000 to extend Oliver's initiative to every school in the county.