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If Jamie Oliver Wants to Help America’s Fattest City, He Should Start by Turning Off the Cameras

October 12, 2009

Based on data from a 2008 CDC study, the greater Huntington, West Virginia, area (including counties in eastern Kentucky and southeastern Ohio) topped last November’s list of the unhealthiest metropolitan areas in America. As such, Huntington has been tagged with the epithet “America’s Fattest City” in numerous news articles since then.

The frequency of these articles and attention to the study have drastically increased since British TV chef Jamie Oliver came to Huntington to teach residents about healthy eating. Of course, his efforts will be the subject of a six-episode reality TV mini-series, set to air on ABC in early 2010.

I wish I could believe that Oliver and his cohorts had the good intentions or the cultural sensitivity necessary to bring about a positive net outcome for Huntington and the Appalachian region in which it’s situated. But unless the production team shuts off the cameras and Oliver goes to work with public health rather than ratings as his goal, they’ll ultimately do more harm than good.

No matter where the “fattest city” is located, obesity that’s widespread enough to earn any locale such a dubious title could not occur in a vacuum. Political, cultural, and socioeconomic factors weigh heavily on the overall health of any city and its residents. As Mark M. so cogently adds in the comments below, “Where you find poor people, you find bad food; where you find bad food, you find obesity.”

Nowhere is this interaction more potent than in central Appalachia, the heart of which lies in the coal-producing areas of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Counties in this region are among the poorest in the nation, and most are classified as either “distressed” or “at-risk” by the Appalachian Regional Commission. The region’s rankings in educational attainment, real employment, poverty, income, and yes, the health of citizens are all strikingly low.

There is wide consensus among scholars and analysts that these negative measures and outcomes are inter-related symptoms of political and economic models that favor a few industries and corporate interests over the needs of the larger population. Historically, wealth and resources have flowed out of the region, and those who remained have had to make do with substandard, poorly funded schools, overwhelming political corruption, and environmental devastation. Despite some progress and some reductions in the gaps between Appalachia and the rest of the nation, these trends continue.

But of course life goes on in Appalachia, a region of astounding natural beauty and rich cultural, artistic, and culinary traditions. This complex idea—that central Appalachia is both troubled AND vibrant, even in the area of food production and consumption—will almost certainly be glossed over in Jamie Oliver’s TV show.

Even leaving aside the media’s long history of distorted representations of Appalachia, signs are already pointing in this direction, as when Oliver recently stated that no Appalachian he has encountered knows how to cook from scratch. This is, of course, a comment that displays profound ignorance of the region’s cultural and culinary traditions that date back centuries.

This is an essential flaw in many pop culture representations of Appalachia, even the well-intentioned ones, that cast the region as some sort of “other America.” By focusing on a few individuals in a nonfictional or “reality-based” milieu, media products such as Oliver’s cooking show (or Diane Sawyer’s February 20/20 special) force unique and often sensational stories of struggle and woe to become proxies for the entire region in the public mind. I don’t doubt that Oliver has met few if any people who can cook from scratch. But when he makes such a generalization (based on limited evidence) to an audience of millions who know nothing about the region, his perspective is sufficient to create (or reinforce) a stereotype about all Appalachians that has little to do with complex reality.

Perez Hilton and even some real human beings are already saying profoundly stupid and offensive things (special condemnation for Rene Lynch’s horrifically condescending “save us from ourselves” comment) in response to this production, and it hasn’t even aired yet. These media-generated stereotypes make it more difficult for Appalachians to address their region’s problems. A few Huntington residents may lose some weight, and the town’s schools may stop serving funnel cakes in the cafeteria, but I fear that further distortion, condemnation, and marginalization of Appalachians will be the most salient and widespread legacy of Oliver’s show.

In other words, the only way Oliver’s incursion into Appalachia can have a net positive effect for the region is if he takes off the “TV chef” hat, turns off the cameras, and teaches some cooking classes in the local community center. In this highly unlikely event, the same small number of Appalachians would still directly benefit, but the whole region wouldn’t have to suffer further ignominy in the process.

  1. October 12, 2009 6:45 pm

    Being from West Virginia and a graduate of Marshall, I’ll skip the easy jokes about the “Thundering Herd” being the crowd at the stadium and not the football team.

    I don’t doubt the validity of the report, despite the characteristic defensiveness of people in the area in the linked article from the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. And while there is a rich (in more ways than one, I’m here to tell ya) tradition of Appalachian cooking, these days our food is more likely to come from a box bought at Wal-Mart. Huntington is a long-depressed area economically and the surrounding counties are much worse. Where you find poor people, you find bad food; where you find bad food, you find obesity. I don’t know the numbers behind the report, but I sure have spent a lot of time looking at West Virginians, and I can tell you that even if Huntington is not “America’s Fattest City”, the tri-state region and the entire state has a serious problem – just not one of not knowing how to eat healthily. Poverty is at the root of virtually all of West Virginia’s problems and always has been.

    The cure for the obesity epidemic is found in fighting poverty, not just educating people about what to eat. When what you can afford is cheap, processed starches, poor health follows. (The second “fattest city?” Detroit, not exactly a place known for rich living.)

    Maybe some enterprising person (one NOT named Michael Moore, anyway) can figure out a way to get that message out to the world at large.

  2. October 12, 2009 10:48 pm

    It’s funny, there’s a certain defensiveness that comes with being from Appalachia about one’s Appalachian-ness. What you wrote struck a chord with me – you’re dead on about the approach these people are taking being not only unhelpful but insulting. I appreciated that very much. I want to take the time now to say that, since I’m not writing in a hurry (I was on dinner break, ironically enough, eating some not-to-healthy food myself.) Talking about class and poverty issues is tough in a country where people pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead of manifesting as hunger alone, it also manifests as terrible nutrition and in a seeming paradox obesity, what was once considered a sign of overindulgence. And you’re right – if Jamie Oliver or anyone else wants to help, the point that needs to be made is that there is a reason the poor are fat and the rich are thin now.

  3. Autumn D permalink
    October 12, 2009 10:54 pm

    Another perspective on the show:

    I think if anyone could take this subject seriously, it’s Jamie Oliver. He’s been doing some really impressive work in some smaller communities in Britain.

  4. A. McKenzie permalink
    March 23, 2010 3:43 pm

    Diane Sawyer is America’s secret bride of the Devil. First Nixon, then she goes Sandy Duncan on Charlie Gibson!

  5. T. Stump permalink
    March 26, 2010 5:47 pm

    I have yet to watch the show (Christine has caught them all so far). I hope he addresses how lobbyists for processed, starchy, corn syrup-laden “food” facilitate a downward distortion in price for their products. Hence, districts with financial deficits are left with little alternative to such items.


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