Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Did Jamie Oliver really shape up town?

By Hanna Raskin, Special to CNN
Jamie Oliver's mission: Help Huntington, West Virginia, change its food habits. A town spokeswoman says give them some credit.
Jamie Oliver's mission: Help Huntington, West Virginia, change its food habits. A town spokeswoman says give them some credit.
  • Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver takes on obesity in Huntington, West Virginia
  • Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" set to debut on ABC on Sunday
  • Spokeswoman says residents are exercising and eating better, but not because of Oliver

Editor's Note: Jamie Oliver will appear on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Thursday, March 25, at 9 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- Did Jamie Oliver really shape up America's unhealthiest city?

A spokeswoman for Huntington, West Virginia -- the city Oliver singled out as one of the unhealthiest places in America -- says local residents are exercising and eating better. But she's not giving much credit to the cheeky British chef and nutrition activist.

"What people need to realize is there was already a movement to make Huntington healthier," says Brandi Jacobs-Jones, whose West Virginia hometown plays a starring role in Oliver's new macro-makeover show "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," set to debut on ABC on Sunday.

Huntington first made its way into the national consciousness in 2008, when The Associated Press named it "America's fattest city," citing unmatched rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and rates of toothlessness among older residents.

Video: Jamie Oliver's food crusade

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a morbidity and mortality report released in February, said that 32.9 percent of the populace surveyed in an area that included Huntington and nearby Ashland, Kentucky, is obese.

Jacob-Jones disputes those findings, saying the survey covered a broad tri-state area surrounding her college town.

"People think we're all morbidly obese, walking around eating pizza," she grumbles. "We have 5Ks every weekend. When the production crew came here, I was like 'We have our teeth. We have master's degrees.' "

Not everyone is so tough on the celebrity chef.

Angela Harrison, a TV reviewer for the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, says the show doesn't portray Huntington badly. Actually, she says, "Oliver is very complimentary of Huntington and its people throughout the entire hour -- even when they give him a hard time."

Harrison says "no one cuts him any slack" when Huntington residents learn about disparaging comments the Naked Chef made about them to British press.

"I personally think it's the best moment of the show," Harrison says.

Oliver and his crew descended on Huntington in the fall of 2009 with the admittedly ambitious goal of redefining its residents' relationship with food. His team spent five months consulting with cafeteria workers, coaching veggie-averse schoolchildren and opening up a community kitchen serving wholesome meals.

"The health statistics here are some of the most crippling and scary in the world," Oliver says in a show promo, calling Huntington "a dark place."

Oliver took on Huntington after successfully reforming the school meal system in the United Kingdom.

In the UK, Oliver spearheaded a healthy school lunch campaign that persuaded the government there to allocate more than $400 million for the lunches.

If the trailer can be trusted, he apparently assumed his résumé entitled him to a hero's welcome and was stunned to discover skeptics who didn't share his revulsion to processed chicken nuggets.

Oliver burst into tears after a hostile interview with a radio host who said, "we don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day."

The trailer then cuts to a weeping Oliver: "They don't understand me," he says, "they don't know why I'm here."

To the contrary, Jacobs-Jones says, the city of Huntington already had anti-obesity programs in place when Oliver showed up. His presence only served to "further the mission" by making healthy habits a popular conversation topic.

"We are creating a committee to evaluate how we can implement some of Jamie's suggestions," she adds diplomatically.

Jacobs-Jones suspects the lasting result of Oliver's extended stay might not be trimmer waistlines, but fattened city coffers.

"I firmly believe anything that puts us on the national forefront is good," she says. "We're applying for a Google program right now, and maybe this will help. You never know."