Jamie Oliver Takes Food Revolution to West Virginia

'Naked Chef' tries to convince town of unhealthy eaters to cook, diet right.

March 19, 2010 — -- Huntington, W.Va., holds the dubious distinction of being called America's unhealthiest city. Now, Jamie Oliver, one of Britain's hottest and most outspoken chefs, has come to town.

For his outspoken views on food sourcing and preparation, Oliver has been called a "food crusader." But those aren't the words he uses.

"I'm like a professional s***-stirrer," Oliver told "Nightline" in a recent interview. "And I know that's a naughty word to use, but that is kind of true."

He may not seem to fit in in Huntington. But Oliver is on a mission -- quite literally.

"The story of Huntington is about wanting to clean up the horizon of food," Oliver said. "And that's schools, and that's supermarkets and it's the restaurants and the fast food industry."

With a population of more than 50,000, Huntington has more pizza parlors than gyms. It's full of good deals for cheap meals, and it's not necessarily the most pedestrian-friendly of towns.

Oliver said Huntington could basically be anywhere in America.

"I've spent 18 months traveling around America, and this town looks and feels like any other," he said. "Yes, this area has some of the tip-of-the-iceberg of problems, but it's only 2 to 3 percent away from the national average. The reason I'm passionate to do this program is because this is about the whole of America.

"We're in a situation now where weight and extreme weight and heart disease is the biggest killer in this country today," he said. "It's not murder, it's not crime -- it is heart disease. ... And I hope I cause trouble by saying that it [unhealthy eating] is child abuse."

So Oliver decided to take matters into his own hands, all with the hopes of creating a positive chain reaction across this country. He shot a six-part reality series, "Jamie's Food Revolution," airing on ABC over three months. He challenged the residents of Huntington to change their minds, their habits and the contents of their refrigerators.

"I want Americans to enjoy food," Oliver said. "I want them to celebrate food. I want them to, on occasions, to have big cakes and great things. And I want them to indulge. ... It's not the extremes and the treats that are the problem. It's the everyday."

Back in his native England, Oliver became famous as "The Naked Chef" for persuading a nation to eat naked food, to get rid of the additives, the fake flavors, the processed food "product." The goal was food that was fresh, pure, unadorned.

"I've been doing this kind of campaign for nearly seven years now, and some have considered me a hippie, but the world [as seen] through my eyes is there's a lot of people in the public who are getting mugged," Oliver said. "They go to buy something that they think is one thing, but it's another. There are all sorts of chemicals. It's not food! And these chemicals have been banned because they hurt us. Duh!!!"

'It's About Education'

Oliver's work in England culminated in a successful campaign to change what British schoolchildren eat. His crusade for better student lunches bore fruit -- with more fruits and vegetables on public school menus.

"My general rule is that if everyone knew how to cook fresh produce from their local area, and Monday to Thursday within 20 minutes, you know, there's millions of recipes out there to be had," Oliver said.

"The issue really is not about food, it's about education," he added. "If you feel confident to sit there and put a pan on and cut up some fresh chicken and a few little bits and pieces, and know what spices and oils to make it taste heavenly, if you can do that, often you can save money and, really, it's the transition of highly-processed food to real food."

Stacie Edwards, 35, was one Huntington resident who welcomed the British invasion.

"We were eating what normal people eat -- you know, the boxed meals, packaged hamburgers, cookies, chips and snacks," Edwards said. "It was unbelievable. But with four kids, I kind of felt like I had to have the easy stuff around."

Edwards said she was shocked when Oliver grouped all the food they ate in a normal week on a table.

"That food on the table was definitely a shock," Edwards said. "I thought there was no way that we ate that much in a week. But the 30 frozen pizzas that were on the floor, well, I did buy 30 frozen pizzas because they were on sale. But when they disappeared in four days, I knew that, OK, there's seven of us -- something is going on."

Edwards said Oliver was surprised at what her family ate.

"He was just like, 'Oh, my goodness!'" Edwards said. "He couldn't believe it. But you know, me and all 50 of my friends probably eat like this. ... I was just like everyone else -- it's too expensive to eat healthy. Everybody around here, that's just one of the things you hear. And for me it was convenience, it was easier, I didn't want to cook, you know. So I just went through the drive-thrus and bought the frozen pizzas and here we are in the mess that we're in. We're all overweight.

"What we've tried to do here in Huntington is a 'food revolution,'" Oliver said. "It sounds big to say that, but we're starting off with something really small here that we want to grow. ... People want better for themselves and their kids."

Whether they wanted better than to be the butt of a national joke, or they liked the cachet of a superstar in town, or they wanted a shot at reality-TV fame, Huntington residents turned out en masse for a cooking class from Oliver, all with the hope of changing their lives.

But not everyone was welcoming. Local DJ Rod Willis took to the airwaves to denounce what he saw as foreign, unwarranted meddling.

"Damn right," Willis told ABC News. "I mean, think about it for a minute: It's nothing that we don't already know. It's just personal responsibility. And Jamie Oliver is coming to town to, I don't know. ... I mean, what is he going to do here? ... I think he thinks he is going to change everything. We know, but we just choose to eat what we want to eat."

Oliver called for a long view.

"You have to put it in perspective," said Oliver. "The future of your country is in the form of children, and they're beautiful and they're everything. And if you proficiently give them s*** every day from the age of three until 18, by the time they're 20, they're screwed -- their habits and their taste buds. The world through my eyes is screwed up, but I don't think it's hard to fix it. All it needs is the parents of America to say, 'We want better! And we want it now!'

"I just think that the great thing that's got to happen to the public is to get within the conscience of supermarkets and restaurants and even my industry, as well," he said. "I just sort of have a new base of ethics: What's right and what's wrong? Where should it come from? How should it be treated? How processed can be considered acceptable? But it's the chemistry that scares the life out of me."

'I'm Not Anti-Fast Food'

Oliver was ready to give his cooking class.

"Are you guys ready to cook?!!" he said to cheers and clapping. "As you can see, we've got the beans, some sugar snap peas, we've got some noodles here, some sliced beef steak, and the real key to it, some spring onions and chili."

Oliver is hopeful, but he remains realistic as well.

"I don't want all the fast food chains to go bankrupt, and it won't happen, but I do want people to phone up and say that they don't want mechanically reclaimed meat in our food, we don't want all these additives," he said. "Give us a fresh patty. Give us a salad, not as an extra, but in it, incorporated. I'm not anti-fast food, I just want the people cooking it not to mug the public, for sure."

Edwards said there was hope for change.

"Jamie's not the savior for Huntington, but he is going to help us and give us the tools that we need," she said.

Of course, you'll have to watch the show to find out how it all turns out. Does Rod Willis become a convert? Did Stacie Edwards lose weight? Did a foreigner manage to break Huntington's bad habits?

"And you know what my belief is?" asked Oliver. "This beautiful town and the wonderful people that I've worked with and gotten to know, through their struggle, through their success, and through the heart of this community, I believe that America will be touched. And all I ask of America is one thing: Want better!"

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