TV chef says W.Va. show won’t insult residents

Published 9:57 am Thursday, September 10, 2009

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has only been in Huntington for a day, but he’s already encountered one of the delicacies that’s helped earn the town the designation of America’s unhealthiest city — a 15” frankfurter from local favorite Hillbilly Hotdogs.

“It tasted great,” he said.

Oliver is filming a reality TV show for ABC in Huntington this fall because of the city’s reputation as the fattest metropolitan area in the country. He’s hoping to replicate some of the programs he helped launch in his native Britain, designed to improve the quality of food kids get at school and people make at home.

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But he isn’t in town to insult its residents or crusade against beloved comfort foods.

“I’m not going to be attacking anyone, per se, it’s just getting my head around what’s different about this town,” Oliver said at a public meeting in city hall in front of about 150 people.

Oliver will confront some serious problem s in the course of the two-to-three month schedule planned for the show. A 2006 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named the Huntington metropolitan area as the unhealthiest of 150 areas studied.

Nearly half the adults in Huntington are obese. The region also leads in a half-dozen other illness measures, including heart disease and diabetes.

The situation was highlighted last year by an Associated Press story that outraged some in the area, who claimed it was too harsh toward the city.

Those nerves are still raw, and Oliver said he knows there are people in town who don’t want him here.

“Ultimately, I’m a foreigner,” he said. “I’ve got no place being here in some ways, but I think I’ve got all the right reasons for being here.”

Part of the reason for the town hall meeting, which was filmed by ABC, was to allay fears that the show will be trafficking in tired stereotypes of fat hillbillies.

“I don’t even know what a hillbilly is,” Oliver said. “The reason I’m here is because some say this is the most unhealthy town in America, which is the most unhealthy country in the world,” he said.

Oliver was short on details for the show’s plans. He announced a crash course in cooking to be held in the city on Friday, and said there will likely be liaisons with schools, churches and community groups. He wants to focus on getting more people cooking from scratch at home, as well as improving the quality of food in the schools.

“What really works is when lots of little things come together and can use each other’s resources,” he said.

Oliver got an enthusiastic reception at the meeting, although some in the crowd were skeptical that the show’s effort will be able to overcome the areas problems, which are rooted in economics and other issues.

“Some of us know that Whole Foods, et cetera are more expensive than the foods that most people consume around here,” resident John Procto r said.

Others said that focusing on school meals alone will not address the problem of the food children eat with their families at home.

“If the food at home doesn’t change, the food they eat at school isn’t going to have enough of an impact,” Eve Atkinson said.

The goal of the show is to create programs that will last long after the TV crews have gone home, Oliver said, adding that he understands the problem has deep roots and multiple causes.

“I don’t come here like some angel thinking I can fix that,” he said, “but I have been fairly good at creating situations that allow people to help themselves.”

City officials have embraced Oliver’s effort, opening City Hall for Wednesday’s meeting and pledging to work with the show during the next several months.

Mayor Kim Wolfe said Huntington ultimately stands to gain, despite the stigma of being dubbed the country’s least healthy city.