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Jamie Oliver’s Easy Target

March 30, 2010

We are now two episodes into Jamie Oliver’s televised effort to spark a “food revolution” in America. Thus far, Oliver has encountered resistance from nearly every corner of Huntington, West Virginia, his chosen battleground.

The local radio DJ doesn’t like what he perceives to be Oliver’s plan to get West Virginians to “eat lettuce all day.” The school cafeteria cooks don’t like his ideas for how to feed 400 children, and they don’t mind expressing the opinion that those ideas won’t work. The school board representative doesn’t like Oliver’s budget or his indifference to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations. Perhaps most important of all, the children at Central City Elementary School don’t like Oliver’s food, which represents a serious departure from the pizza-and-nuggets diet to which they are accustomed.

From the perspective of (perhaps excessive) sensitivity to media portrayals of central Appalachia—primarily eastern Kentucky, southeastern Ohio, southwestern Virginia, and most of West Virginia—there were plenty of things about Oliver’s incursion into Huntington that I was expecting not to like. Of course, ever since I first heard about the show, I’ve wanted Oliver to succeed to whatever degree is reasonable to expect, in both his efforts to overhaul the Huntington school foods program and his work with residents to teach them how to cook and eat more healthfully. So, I wasn’t apprehensive about his efforts themselves as much as the televised presentation thereof.

Regarding the former, I don’t think you can watch the first two episodes with any sort of open mind and not believe that Oliver’s motives are sincere. His crying jag at the end of Episode 1 was a little excessive, but I think such outbursts and his other comments show beyond reasonable doubt that Oliver cares deeply, and that concern genuinely drives him to want to do good.

Regarding the latter, I found Oliver himself to be somewhat less unfair to Huntington than I expected. I think he could argue legitimately that he has tempered his criticisms with sufficient statements of respect and regard for the people and the town he’s working with. But concerns remain. One is his choice of the Edwards family to represent the entire town (and by extension, the entire state, region, and nation). Though they’re well-intentioned and sweet in their own way, Oliver’s own words at the 28:15 mark of Episode 1 clearly show that’s what he’s doing:

This family, where their health is, where they can get to, that’s why I’m here. This is the real Huntington. It’s not a statistic. It’s a town, it’s a community, and it’s a family.

For those who haven’t seen the show, you should know that every member of the Edwards family is profoundly overweight, even obese. Of course their problems are real, and they deserve every bit of help that Oliver can give them. But it does the Edwards family and all citizens of the state and region a disservice for them to be held up as a token “Huntington family.” As I wrote in an earlier piece on Jamie Oliver and West Virginia, “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.”

It’s even more necessary to take a step back and look beyond the host’s day-to-day interactions with those he is trying to help. Doing so, I would still have to argue that the choice of Huntington as the aforementioned “battleground” is based on some seriously flawed assumptions. As the “unhealthiest city in America,” Huntington is the proverbial low-hanging fruit. It’s an easy target.

Unless something radically changes in the remaining episodes, and Oliver starts addressing the underlying causes of regional and national obesity, the scope of his contributions to any so-called food revolution will be sorely limited. Yes, bad consumer choices and lack of individual knowledge and skills are a large part of the obesity problem on regional and national levels. But I just don’t see that you can ignore the giant agribusiness and government forces that make bad food cheap and easy to procure. Nor can you turn a blind eye to the role of the marketing/media complex that seeks to whip up frenzied demand among our nation’s children for one junk food nightmare after another.

The first two episodes of Oliver’s show haven’t given me great hope that he will even consider taking his efforts out of a few Huntington kitchens and into the courts, legislative halls, and corporate boardrooms where some of the battles must be fought and won. His interaction with the Huntington school board representative at the 30-minute mark of Episode 1 betrayed quite a bit about Oliver’s inability or unwillingness to make this push. He dismisses as “academic” the comprehensive U.S.D.A. regulations that significantly hinder any one school district’s ability to independently pursue a different food service approach.

Oliver’s flat wrong—those requirements are not “academic.” For good or ill (mostly ill since they seem to be established with more consideration of agribusiness profit interests than of children’s health), they’re the public policy foundation of the process that decides what food must go on school lunch trays. Sadly, in their historic and current forms, and thanks also to the ever-growing budget pressures that school districts face, they’re how pizza becomes health food. [Side note: I personally remember a teacher telling my elementary school class that pizza is very healthy because it contains all the food groups]. They’re how strawberry-flavored “milk” with high-fructose corn syrup as a main ingredient is considered a suitable beverage. Famously, they’re how ketchup becomes a vegetable.

And regarding the role of marketing and the media, well, it seems highly unlikely that a television show on a network driven by those very revenues will critically explore the effects of junk food advertising on public health. Call me cynical, but I don’t see it happening.

So, Oliver does deserve credit for being a straight shooter, and I truly hope he hits his mark on his television show. I hope the Edwards family loses weight and gets healthy. I hope the Oliver-sponsored cooking classes at Huntington’s new Jamie’s Kitchen take off and become popular. I hope the town’s and the region’s health statistics improve. I hope schools on a state or even regional/national level are pressured into doing better with their limited budgets to serve better food.

But none of those successes will change two trends that are thus far identifiable in his show: Jamie Oliver has set his sights on an easy target in Huntington, West Virginia, and he doesn’t seem to be willing to consider or address the larger forces that have helped put a health-crisis bullseye on so many of the town’s residents.

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