The Food Revolution: A Lesson from Jamie Oliver
By Charles Shumaker
It didn’t take long after the announcement of Jamie Oliver’s role in a new reality television show—based in Huntington and focused on the unhealthy lifestyles of residents—before the skeptics came out.
How would Huntington be portrayed? Why would the Jewel City want to be recognized on national television as an unhealthy place to live? Would the changes and excitement endure after filming stopped?
Those questions began to be answered as Oliver, the celebrity chef known for various television shows focused on using fresh ingredients, made his presence known throughout the Huntington community.
While in Huntington during the fall of 2009, Oliver developed relationships with local unhealthy families. He created Jamie’s Kitchen, now known as Huntington’s Kitchen, as a community kitchen that instructs stay-at-home moms, single dads and anyone else who has an interest in learning how to cook healthier along with the basics of fresh food preparation. Oliver then ventured into Cabell County Schools and started tinkering in the kitchens where the school lunches for more than 12,500 students are prepared each school day.
It was in those school kitchens, specifically in the Central City Elementary and Huntington High School kitchens, where Oliver began to see what his lasting impact might be in Huntington. In his native country, England, Oliver started a food revolution by changing menus and attitudes. In Huntington, Oliver took the same approach. He saw a chance to provide healthier school lunches by reinventing the way meals are prepared each day.
To make sure Oliver’s food revolution had a lasting impression on Huntington, Cabell Huntington Hospital stepped up with $130,000 in donations—$80,000 to continue to improve school lunches in all Cabell County public schools and $50,000 to continue the mission of Huntington’s Kitchen.
Accelerated by the donation from Cabell Huntington Hospital, the 28 public schools in Cabell County are now undergoing school food makeovers that include plans to remove recipes and menus using ingredients that are unhealthy or too complex and replacing them with lunch menus featuring fresh ingredients and healthier options. This process isn’t simple or cheap. School officials hope the changes have a profound and long-term positive impact on the lives of children.
“To get Cabell Huntington’s support here is an epic moment in the school food revolution,” Oliver says. “What I’ve been doing at the moment has been small and intimate—two schools—admittedly thousands of kids, but I always had the dream of being able to leave Huntington with the ability to grow it among all 12,500 kids every day. And to have that support from the hospital has been an absolute godsend.”
Oliver’s arrival and the support of Cabell Huntington Hospital were each met with great enthusiasm. At a November event to conclude filming for the television show, a food rally took over a block of Huntington’s downtown. Vendors weren’t peddling the usual fare served in a festival-like setting. Instead, lean buffalo burgers and fresh fruits and vegetables were among the food items for sale. Seemingly, the food revolution was underway and the unhealthy habits Huntington was criticized for in an Associated Press article might disappear with the changes to school lunches. The healthy eating and healthy living initiatives will continue to spread with the boost of the debut of the television show.
A Recipe for School Menu Makeovers
Work is underway in the kitchens of Cabell County public schools, where a chef from Sustainable Food Systems is training school cooks and evaluating processes and supplies. Even though students have been offered healthy options for years, the food service program has been looking for ways to reduce fat and sodium in foods, and this school lunch reform offers new opportunities, says Cabell County Schools Food Service Director Rhonda McCoy.
“Cabell County Schools is now going one step further to improve school meals by eliminating processed foods served to students,” McCoy says. “School cooks will be working with chefs from Sustainable Food Systems to learn new techniques and skills needed to cook meals from scratch. This process involves time management as well as cooking techniques. Chefs will work for a full week in each of the Cabell County school kitchens to roll out new recipes and menus.”
Once the cooks have worked with the chefs, the schools will maintain the new menus for the remainder of this school year, she says. It will take the entire school year for the chefs to visit each school.
Making all of these changes at the school level is an effort by school officials to improve the health and habits of children and help their educational growth and development.
“When most people talk about education, child nutrition is generally not the first thought that comes to mind; however, research indicates that the healthy eating part of a healthy lifestyle plays a major role in achievement and school performance as well as intellectual and physical development,” says Cabell County Public Schools Superintendent William Smith. “It is clear that it takes all of us to make a difference. We must do all that we can to secure a healthy future for our children and our community. The Jamie Oliver Project has given us the impetus to take the next step in providing healthy meals to our students. We thank Cabell Huntington Hospital for its generous gift that will provide our talented cooks with additional skills and techniques as we work to reduce processed foods on our menus.”
By helping children eat healthier meals in Cabell County Schools, West Virginia has the opportunity to lead the way for a national revolution in how schools reform their menus. These early changes will be evident later in the students’ lives when they avoid health problems like diabetes and obesity through continued healthy eating.
“It is clear that our community has a significant problem with obesity and obesity-related disease,” says Brent Marsteller, Cabell Huntington Hospital president and CEO, “and it is equally clear that our community must take action to address these problems. The stakes are much too high to allow the status quo to continue.
“We believe there is no better place to start than with our children. That’s why we heartily support the school lunch changes initiated by Jamie Oliver and endorsed by Cabell County Schools.”