When we reviewed the re-issue of Jamie's Food Revolution cookbook, we referenced one of several articles that described the Huntington, West Virginia public school food situation — at least at Huntington's Kitchen, the Oliver-inspired community cooking school — as largely bankrupt one year after the star's departure. Thank god we were wrong.
Doug Sheils, whom you may remember from several episodes of “Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution,” emailed to tell us that “In reality, Huntington's Kitchen is doing quite well.”
As the Director of Marketing and PR for Cabell Huntington Hospital, Sheils is the guy Oliver pressured to kick in hospital funds to help shape up the school lunches of the city's approximately 12,500 kids. “Cabell Huntington Hospital has donated a total of $110,000 to Huntington's Kitchen to keep it operational for two years and to expand a local food system that connects local farmers and gardeners to the kitchen,” Sheils continued in his email. Turn the page for our interview with Sheils, who tells us what's really been going on in Huntington since Oliver left.
Squid Ink: Sounds like we need to apologize for that stick-our-foot-in-it comment about Huntington's Kitchen being “out of broccoli money” hardly one year later.
Doug Sheils: Well, that's kind of how I got involved in this whole thing from the beginning. I contacted Jamie Oliver to make sure he set the story straight, too. Jamie eventually came around to understanding the correct situation here, that we're not the fattest city in the country. There are a lot of cities like us. Which isn't to say we don't have work to do, but that we aren't quite what the public sees. Much of that was what ABC wanted to project for television viewers.
SI: Good old reality TV. So we've heard a lot of media speculation about what's been going on, but give us your recap of the past year in Huntington since all of this started.
DS: It's been over a year, basically, since the show wrapped up. Jamie left here in November of 2009, and starting in December, or really January of 2010, that's when we as the county hospital committed $100,000 to change the school menus, all 26 schools in the county. We consulted with Sustainable Food Systems, got them to revamp the menus for us. The goal was to train cooks to prepare healthier meals, to get rid of processed food. Rather than just opening a cardboard box of chicken nuggets and warming it up, if you train the cooks to use fresh foods, it has a lasting, multi-year effect. We just wish we had more participation by the school systems.
SI: By participation you mean among the kids?
DS: Yes. That has gone well in some respects, not so well in others. We don't have as many kids actually buying meals as we'd like because some of the kids just don't like “good” food. We still also have issues with the USDA and the purchasing of commodity foods, and how they make that so cheap.
SI: But it's a start.
DS: Yes. When Jamie was here, we at that time committed $50,000 to Huntington's Kitchen [a community cooking school], and that money essentially pays for rent and utilities on this beautiful downtown storefront that has been turned into a wonderful kitchen. For the first year, US Foodservice paid for the food for our kitchen, something around $20,000. The follow up [in media] on them has been about them not picking up the second year. But I'm not really concerned with that at this point — they fulfilled their commitment, there's nothing wrong with that. In October 2010, our hospital committed another $50,000 to run the kitchen for another year. Partly because of that, we were awarded $10,000 for the national Hospital Charitable Service Award, so we also donated that money back into the program, but in a new area called Fresh Market.
SI: Like a farmer's market sort of thing.
DS: Yes, our goal is to buy locally grown produce and sell it at no profit to low income families in the community so they can eat better. It's a way for the entire community to get fresh fruits and vegetables. We hired a coordinator to connect the local community to local farmers and gardeners, and also to supply restaurants with fresh food. We currently have three Fresh Markets, one in a low-income area, another in front of a local radio station because they also promote it for us, and one recently in front of Huntington's Kitchen.
SI: It's been successful in the community?
DS: You know, we're starting slowly because we really think it will grow into something that will be sustainable for the Kitchen. The Kitchen itself has really grown. Since February of 2010, more than 500 people have gone through the Kitchen's 6 to 8 week full cooking course, more have taken individual classes.
One track of classes is Jamie's Basic Steps To Healthy Cooking class, and we also do Share Our Strength's Cooking Matters courses which are targeted to lower income individuals. They prepare meals from scratch but also help them learn how to shop for ingredients they may not be familiar with, and when they leave, we provide a bag of groceries for them to take home. A lot of the classes are taught by our executive chef at the hospital. We're hoping this program really provides more incentive to local farmers to bring their produce here.
SI: Sounds like Oliver coming has hardly been the zero sum game that many media have portrayed in recent months for you.
DS: That's what drew me into all of this — defending the city that is my hometown, that I grew up in. Not wanting to see our name dragged through the mud. If we are the fattest city in America, we deserve it. But we're not actually the fattest, or the only city in America, that has this problem. I'm not saying we're thin and healthy. We have a very serious problem here, as do other areas of the country.
But through trying to set the record straight, I established a dialog with Jamie during that show. It was through that dialog, with cameras rolling, that he asked me directly for money to help him with his cause. So I did some research, and we found it to be a good fit for our mission at the hospital. That's when we jumped into this all in a big way. We've really been working on trying to reverse the bad statistics. His coming has been a great boost to our area. If it hasn't reversed obesity, it's gotten us focused on this issue, and that's a good thing. We're still taking about it. Jamie really caused us to examine ourselves, what we are doing. We needed to do that.
SI: Nice to hear that you don't share the irritation that many Americans do that a British chef got involved in our problems.
DS: We're very happy that he came here. And he really made a big impact here. No, he didn't spend a lot of his own money to make these changes. It was money that our hospital and our community invested. But that's really OK. If this [healthy eating initiative] is going to be a sustainable program, the communities themselves have to put up the money. You can't count on Jamie Oliver to make changes for you, to provide the money for everyone.