Some seven years ago, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver traveled to Huntington, West Virginia, on a mission: To save the residents of the so-called “fattest and unhealthiest” U.S. city from themselves.
As Oliver’s ABC reality show, “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” told the story, the residents of Huntington were slowly being killed by the fatty, fried foods dominating the menus of their city’s school cafeterias. And as the cameras rolled, he was going to put a stop to it.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Students were unhappy with the changes Oliver made to their schools’ cafeteria offerings — which didn’t even meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition standards — and meal participation began to drop. Rhonda McCoy, the county’s schools food-service director, was left to pick up the pieces.
What happened next is the subject of a story published this week on The Huffington Post Highline.
In the piece, titled “Revenge of the Lunch Lady,” food writer Jane Black, who has been closely following Huntington’s school lunch trouble since 2010, describes how McCoy, depicted as a villain by Oliver’s TV cameras, has succeeded in improving the meals in her county’s school cafeterias — an effort that actually began before Oliver even set foot in Huntington.
HuffPost recently spoke with Black about McCoy’s success in West Virginia and what that success says about the challenges — and opportunities — facing school cafeterias nationwide.
I know that you have reported on Jamie Oliver and school lunches in Huntington before. What inspired you to jump back into the fray at this particular time?
I’ve been watching [the people in Huntington] for years and years and staying in touch with them, and had been so impressed with what they had achieved. It seemed like a story that really needed to be told.
I think there are great concerns right now that the Republicans who control both houses of Congress could take an ax to the [school lunch] programs. On the other hand, I’m also hearing that they have a lot of other things on their list, so it’s a question of if and when they will get to it.
What did you hope your reporting would highlight for readers?
I think this story is a demonstration of how precarious the work that people like Rhonda McCoy and others are doing can be. They’re always at the mercy of this larger and very politicized conversation about what school food should look like. I wanted to demonstrate how the food service directors and the school cooks who are often vilified are working hard in an absolutely crazy system that is a result of years of political debates and disagreements.
One thing I hope that people will take away from the story is that we as a country need to decide or make some decisions about how important this is to us. Do we think the government should be responsible for feeding kids or not? In some ways, if we could in some way agree on what we want our kids to be eating, it would be easier for people like Rhonda to do their jobs.
Was there anything that came as a surprise to you as you reported this story out?
I think a lot of the conversation about school food focuses on the foods that go on the tray and the nutrition guidelines. The debates about whether pizza is healthy or fries are healthy. That’s what I was focused on originally, because that is my background. But over the last couple of years talking to Rhonda, it became clear to me how important the program called CEP [community eligibility provision] was, and how it allowed her to feed more kids and give them better food at the same time.
How successful that program is, and how it is still a political target, is really shocking to me. If you look at the data, it has worked brilliantly. It made me realize that I and a lot of people are focused on something that makes a good story and a good headline, but that it may not be the thing making the difference between feeding kids well and not.
Your story also seems to me to be an example of how fixing a problem like school lunch can’t be achieved through an outsider like Jamie Oliver trying to force change. Change like this has to come from within.
To a certain degree, it does make the case for giving flexibility and freedom to states and communities to do what’s right for them. An example I’ll give is that maybe in Westport, Connecticut, a wealthy, progressive place, having all local food is the most important thing and they should be able to make that decision. In a place like Huntington, local food is important, but what’s more important is making sure hungry children are eating something, whether or not it’s entirely cooked from scratch.
As far as Jamie is concerned, I’m a big fan of his and I had no intention of saying that he didn’t do good work here. I think he’s right that it’s his job to raise awareness and spur change. Sure, it would have been nice if he said, “Here’s $10 million, I’ll fund your food system,” but that wouldn’t fix the system anyway. I think he’s very impressive in that he uses his celebrity to push for change on important issues.
What do you think is the lesson that can be applied from Huntington to school cafeterias throughout the nation?
I think a key takeaway ― sadly, because nobody likes to hear this ― is that there’s no silver bullet. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It’s a lot of different things: It’s having a really smart person running a very important program. It’s being able to manage a complex operation. There is no one rule or bill or law we can pass that will fix this.
But one thing I think is really key is really prioritizing and valuing the position of food-service director. I think it’s a hard job. For so long, it’s been this underpaid, undervalued position. You have to start thinking about it as a position that really matters. And I think if that happens, you’ll get people really mobilized. Ambitious, smart people in these positions are what it’s really going to take.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Read Jane Black’s story on school lunch in Huntington and beyond.
Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food, water, agriculture and our climate. Follow Erbentraut on Twitter at @robojojo. Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.