Can Jamie Oliver Convince Americans to Eat Well?

The people of Huntington, W. Va., are what you'd call the salt of the earth. Also, they really like salt. And chicken nuggets. And those frozen pizzas with the little cubes of meat and spackle-like cheese. This is the problem with Huntington. Its 50,000 townsfolk love their fattening, starchy, processed junk food, and their reliance on it is the reason half of its adult population is obese, and why a report named the town the unhealthiest city in America. Enter Jamie Oliver, rakish British celebrity chef, who is credited with launching an initiative that led the British government to migrate schools from processed foods to fresher choices. The idea behind his new show, Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, is that he can do the same thing for the entire town of Huntington.

The only problem is that while the good people of Huntington are Twinkiephiles, Doritophiles, and corndog-o-philes, they are not, apparently, Anglophiles. In the show's opening scene, Oliver stops by a local radio station to introduce himself to the town and explain his mission. Immediately, the announcer takes a defensive posture. "We don't want to sit around and eat lettuce all day," he says. "I don't think you should come in here and tell us what to do. Who made you the king?" The exchange plays on screen as juvenile as it reads here, and at first, I was baffled by the announcer's hostility. But as the show slowly reveals, it's not the lettuce the people of Huntington don't want, it's a condescending British guy telling them what to do.

Food Revolution highlights how much of the war on obesity is rooted in classism. One scene shows Oliver reacting to a newspaper article that suggests he thinks the people of Huntington are cola-swilling rubes who think an apple is just a character in the Bible. So most of his time isn't spent cooking, it's spent convincing residents he doesn't look down on them. It'll be an uphill battle. Advice on better eating isn't evaluated on the quality of the advice as much as on its source. The lower-middle class doesn't want to be lectured by a more well-off person about how easy and worthwhile upgrading one's diet is, because the immediate thought is, sure, easy for you, perhaps. When Oliver arrives in Huntington with his British accent and his crates of radicchio, he's dooming himself from the start. He's not only a rich guy, he's a rich British guy, thumbing his nose at our good, old-fashioned American preservatives.

Of course, this is television, so by the end of the show's six-episode run, we'll be shown how the town warms to Oliver once they get to know how nice a guy he is and how mashed potatoes taste better when there are actual potatoes involved. But most of the awareness initiatives aimed at curbing obesity don't have the advantage of a television personality sticking around for weeks to offer focused attention. We quickly glance at the message and the messenger and decide whether or not to take it or leave it. Michelle Obama's mission to fight childhood obesity is a noble one, but our first lady may be too well -off and sophisticated to carry the healthful eating message to people who don't feel like she understands their lives. In order to make real inroads with obesity, we have to first consider that perhaps it's one of the few social causes that doesn't benefit from a celebrity endorsement.