What ‘America’s Fattest City’ Can Teach Us About Food

What ‘America’s Fattest City’ Can Teach Us About Food

In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named Huntington, W.Va. the country’s unhealthiest city — for instance, half of the residents reportedly were obese and half of the seniors had no teeth. The next year, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver arrived from England with a mission — to change the eating habits of this city, starting with school lunch programs. The content later aired in the reality TV series, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.”

Food writer Jane Black and Brent Cunningham, managing editor of The Food & Environment Reporting Network website, visited Huntington and are writing a book about what it will take to get this country eating healthier. They spoke on the Knowledge@Wharton show, which aired on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio, SiriusXM channel 111, to talk about what they’ve found.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jane, you went down to Huntington to live for several months sometime after Jaime Oliver visited in 2009. Were the changes Jamie Oliver helped bring about still in effect, or had the people backslid a little bit?

Jane Black: In terms of the population as a whole, I’m not sure that a lot had changed right after he left, to be honest. The community as a whole was pretty shell-shocked by what had happened. You know, it’s a small town. A big production company comes in from New York and London. The way they saw it, they were being made a laughingstock in front of the country. People were saying, “Oh look, they’re a bunch of fat people.” So there was a mixed reaction down there.

Part of it was, “Yes, we understand we have a problem, and we have to do something about it. And we have to figure out how we are going to make this work for ourselves.” And part of it was, “Who are you to tell us that we have a problem?” … It has a long history of people coming in telling them how to fix things. And they don’t take kindly to that.

Knowledge@Wharton: Explain what you delve into in the book.

“The solutions can’t be a cookie-cutter approach; they need to be homegrown solutions … driven by messengers who the audience is familiar with: pastors, local leaders. Not celebrity chefs from London, not food writers from New York.” –Brent Cunningham

Brent Cunningham: We didn’t really know what we were going to find, honestly. Part of the reason we went there was because we felt that it was a place and a group of people that had not been part of the discussion about our changing food culture in America. So we were interested to see how some of the very familiar messages and strategies that had worked in other places — farmers markets, paying more for better ingredients and all this stuff — were going to resonate with that community.

What we learned was that it’s sort of a mixed bag, depending on who your audience is. The solutions can’t be a cookie-cutter approach; they need to be homegrown solutions, they need to be solutions that are driven by messengers who the audience is familiar with: pastors, local leaders. Not celebrity chefs from London, not food writers from New York. So I think we learned a lot about the incremental pace of change around food and diet in this country.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jane, what was it that you took away from your seven months down there that you’re going to be bringing to this book?

Black: There are two different things I would say about that. One is the schools. … School food is its own universe. I’ve spent many years covering it. It is head-wreckingly complicated. If you talk to people who really, 100%, understand it, they’re a little bit out there. It’s wacky. It’s like people who understand the farm bill. It’s super-complicated. So changing school food and changing an American diet are two entirely different things. And I think sometimes they’re put together, as if the lessons are applicable, one to the other.

There are certain rules you have to follow. Schools get certain kinds of foods for free that, if you have a small budget, you have to use. Then, you have to build on what you have for free. So it’s very complicated. But in terms of what happened as the legacy of Jamie Oliver in Huntington, I will say that, when it comes to school food, he has a huge legacy. He went in there, marched in the door, and said, “You guys are doing everything wrong, and I’m going to tell you how to fix it.” Now, that didn’t go over so well.

“Not just in schools, but across the board in the country, there’s been a great step forward in terms of consciousness about what we’re eating and what’s in it.” –Brent Cunningham

But the woman who runs the school food in Cabell County is a reformer in her own right. She’s not brash, and she’s not charismatic like he is. But she’s a very competent technocrat. She listened to what he said and saw what he did, and said, “I can make this work within the system, and make it work for my cooks and for my budget and for the way the kids like to eat.”

And what she has done there in the last five years is remarkable. I can’t say I’ve been to every school district in the country or even the majority of them. But I would argue that, what they are doing in Huntington is as good school food as you can see anywhere in the country. They make 80%-plus of the food from scratch. They make their own tomato sauce. They roast their own potatoes. They get raw chicken and put it in olive oil and spices and bake it. I’ve gone in there and eaten a meal. It’s not a 3-star Michelin restaurant, but it’s solidly home-cooked, nutritious food, which sure beats the bag of Fritos and can of Coke some kids would otherwise bring in.

Knowledge@Wharton: She also took some of the recipes that Oliver had brought down there, and tweaked them just a little bit to make them fit better into what might be acceptable down there.

Black: She did. And that was what was required, not only because his recipes didn’t meet the USDA nutrition requirements the way they were cooked, but [also] the taste [wasn’t a fit]. I mean, he wanted to do peas with mint, which, in England, is something you grow up eating, [but] in West Virginia, it is just plain weird. He wanted to do curries — that wasn’t going to work. So they made the recipes their own, and they made them to fit local tastes. And that’s really what you have to do.

What I think is interesting is that, in England, sometime in the last couple months, Jamie Oliver went on the record saying that he did not succeed in the schools there, because he was trying to do the same things there. What made it work here were … the local people, who understood their communities and cared about it, took [the task of changing] upon themselves, and made it work. He was certainly the catalyst, and he deserves a lot of credit, but the hard work was done by those school cooks.

“This USDA has been the most food-friendly USDA that we have seen in a long time. That said, talk about a big organization that you have to turn around.” –Jane Black

Knowledge@Wharton: Brent, how well are we doing at pushing forward better cuisine for our kids in schools? Seemingly, we are in a much better place than we were 15 or 20 years ago.

Cunningham: Yes. Not just in schools, but across the board in the country, there’s been a great step forward in terms of consciousness about what we’re eating and what’s in it. And certainly there’s the whole issue in Congress right now about renewing the school nutritional standards. We’ll see what happens there.

But there’s no doubt: [In 2015] alone, there’s been 20 or 25 major announcements by big food companies that are in line with a lot of the things that reformers want. Is it all going to change overnight? No. But it is changing — slowly, and incrementally, and probably not as fast as some of the reformers would like. That’s one of the lessons that we took away from our book — that this is going to take a lot of time. We didn’t get into this situation in 10 years, or 20 years, or even 30 years, and we’re not going to get out of it in that amount of time either. It’s going to take generations. And I think we have to look at the progress in that context.

Knowledge@Wharton: Jane, did the kids buy into all the changes down there in the schools in West Virginia?

Black: One of the things that they have done is, the school district down there has started to work with student farmers to grow lettuce and grow peppers and all kinds of things to put in the food.

That has been an interesting motivator. You know, these kids are [not that] interested in being healthy. But if your friend Joe grew [healthful food], that’s kind of cool. It gives you a reason to want to try something new and to do something. I think they have definitely come around and they have seen the numbers of school lunches bought by students go up over time.

Knowledge@Wharton: What has been the role of the USDA over the last five years?

Black: This USDA has been the most food-friendly USDA that we have seen in a long time. That said, talk about a big organization that you have to turn around.

When I’ve gone in there, and I’ve tried to get from one meeting to the next, people don’t even know how to get from one place to another. It’s this warren of rooms and departments and sub-departments. The thing is that the USDA is responsible for helping farmers, and what farmers like is not a lot of risk. They want guarantees.

I’m not just talking about the subsidies that get talked about all the time, but changing around programs. All these programs are geared to take the risk out, and even when you switch from one risk-free program to another, there’s risk. So it’s tricky. I think we have come some way. But I think the USDA definitely could be more progressive than it has been.

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