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Chef Oliver's show brings star power to the fight against American obesity

Staff Writer
Austin 360
British chef Jamie Oliver, left, launches a new series Friday on ABC. As he tries to change U.S. eating habits, he'll take on the challenge of teaching 1,000 people in Huntington, W.Va. how to cook.

Jamie Oliver's eyes might be bigger than his stomach.

In a new show on ABC, the British chef moves to Huntington, W.Va., a city the government has deemed the unhealthiest in America, to try to change how people in the town think about food. This would be a mighty task anywhere in the country, considering that two-thirds of the population is overweight and that diet-related diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes could mean that for the first time in U.S. history, children might have a shorter average life expectancy than their parents.

"Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" premieres on Friday, but ABC broadcast an hourlong preview Sunday that gave a glimpse of what Oliver is up against, and viewers quickly find out that picky kids are the least of Oliver's troubles.

Stubborn school cooks don't see anything wrong with serving breakfast pizza and balk at the idea of making anything from scratch. ("The future of America is sitting here, having pizza for breakfast," Oliver says as he walks among the cafeteria tables. "If you're a parent, it should (tick) you off.") Bureaucratic school officials refuse to count brown rice as a serving of bread or grain but allow pizza (served the day after the students had breakfast pizza) to count as two servings. Students, some of whom identify a tomato as a potato, admit to eating chicken nuggets for both lunch and dinner on many days.

For the past seven years, Oliver has been working on a similar project with schools and families in England. Just last month, he gave an impassioned speech seen by millions online about food education when accepting the TED Prize, a $100,000 award from the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference in California.

But now he has an opportunity to speak from a much bigger stage: a six-episode primetime series on a major TV network. That's a lot for anyone to chew, even for a chef who made a name for himself on cable television.

In recent years, NBC has brought the obesity epidemic to life in "The Biggest Loser," but that show is focused more on how much a dozen contestants sweat than how the majority of the country relies on processed, nutritionally deficient food.

Never have we had such an up-close view of how Americans eat and, more important, someone asking bluntly, in the kitchen of an overweight family brought to tears when faced with a week's worth of junk food, "Why are you doing this to yourselves?"

So far, Oliver's show combines a heroes-versus-villains storyline with the do-good feel of another ABC hit, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," but not everyone is hooked. In a preview for the Washington Post, former Statesman writer Hank Stuever says the show "has all the problems of most network reality pap" and fails to acknowledge how politicized food has become:

"I'm tired of trying to get the nation to eat right," he writes. "It's tempting to just let folks keel over in a puddle of kountry gravy if they like, dead from clogged arteries or scurvy (or both) ... And it has a certain hectoring quality, a la 'SuperNanny,' that obscures its educational aim. In its zeal to show America to itself, it helps America make fun of itself."

If breakfast pizza leaves a bad taste in Oliver's mouth, it's cynicism like this that leaves a bad taste in mine.

I can't be the only parent who has learned a lesson or two from shows like "SuperNanny," and I have a feeling "Food Revolution" will make us all think twice about serving processed food in our own homes and turning the other cheek when our kids' schools do the same.

The show might also force us to take responsibility for our kids' refusal to eat anything but chicken nuggets. Oliver has to face this fact when the students pick the same-old pizza over his roasted chicken and, at the end of the meal, throw away whole fruit and untouched salads. (If you've ever been in an elementary school cafeteria, you know how real this scene is.)

How do you make kids choose to eat what's good for them when their palates are accustomed to strawberry milk, french fries and foods that are chemically engineered to taste good? We'll see what happens Friday when Oliver removes the choice part of that equation.

Oliver is starting off with schoolchildren, but it will be interesting in future episodes to see how he handles adults, who are often even more stubborn in their eating habits than their kids.

Apparently, grim statistics and a growing waistline alone aren't going to change their minds.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504