After defrosting, frying, and reheating a week's worth of pizza, doughnuts, and corn dogs with a Huntington, West Virginia mother and piling the food on a table in front of her, Jamie Oliver asks Stacie Edwards if they can have a little talk.
"This is going to kill your children early," he says in his faux-Cockney accent, inserting an emphatic pause between each word.
"I would do anything for them ... but I'm killin' 'em," the mother of three says, her words muffled by tears. The music builds: reality television is hungry for this stuff, and in Huntington, ABC and its spunky culinary superstar found a feast.
But a question remains. Why Huntington in the first place? The show's interruption of the town's rhythm has naturally had consequences, and behind the scenes of chicken tenders and second graders chugging strawberry milk, there's reality: how the show has affected the town that is its stage.
Oliver's decision to adapt his UK-based "Ministry of Food" to America was spurred by a 2008 Associated Press article by a journalist named Mike Stobbe, who named Huntington "America's fattest and unhealthiest city," drawing from a CDC report released earlier that year. Stobbe wrote that the report was "based on survey data from 2006, comparing about 150 metropolitan areas." When Oliver heard this and other claims—for example, that "nearly half" of the surrounding county's adults are obsese—it undoubtedly piqued his interest.
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.
As support mounted, the town began to make Oliver's project its own. The kitchen Oliver built downtown has since been renamed "Huntington's Kitchen," with local charity Ebenezer Medical Outreach in charge of teaching residents how to cook healthy meals there. Patrick O'Neal, the principal of the elementary school featured in the show, has lost 15 pounds and adopted Jamie's Base Sauce—which offers a hefty serving of vegetables—into his family's dinner regimen.
"If he hadn't come and shined the spotlight on this we would've just continued doing what we were doing," said Yvonne Jones, executive director of the medical outreach group now running Huntington's Kitchen. She said Oliver's presence "helped people to see themselves" and brought together community members who were already working on improving the town's health.
The citizens of Huntington may have been cast in a bad light for the sake of entertainment, and have had to deal with national scorn for their bad habits, but the strides they've made deserve recognition. As the show continues, perhaps Huntingtonians will give skeptical viewers more reasons to cheer them on.