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Brent A. Marsteller: The food revolution is a marathon, not a sprint

May. 16, 2010 @ 12:00 AM

As "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" came to a close on ABC-TV, dozens of reporters, reviewers and bloggers from across the country raced to judgment on whether chef Jamie Oliver's experiment to change the eating and cooking habits of Huntington, W.Va., was a success or failure.

For a few of these self-appointed jurors, the verdict was "failure," mostly because of a reported drop in student participation in the program, an increase in brown bag lunches sent to school with students and the proposed re-introduction of processed foods in Cabell County schools on Fridays.

As the president and CEO of Cabell Huntington Hospital, which contributed a total of $150,000 to Jamie Oliver's effort, I would definitely not call it a failure. By the end of this school year, all school cooks in Cabell County will have been trained to prepare healthy meals made from scratch, using fresh, whole ingredients, and the vast majority of processed foods will have been removed from school menus. I would call that significant improvement.

As you might expect, there were some initial challenges to overcome. Change is often difficult. And there were some students who didn't like "Jamie's food" at the start. But over time, participation in the school lunch program has grown steadily and most students have grown to enjoy their new lunch offerings.

As for costs, unprocessed food shouldn't be more expensive than processed food. But even if it does cost more to provide our children with meals made from fresh, whole ingredients, I would argue we should still move in that direction. It's the right thing to do. And in the long run, the costs associated with keeping the status quo promise to be much, much higher.

True, there was an initial increase in brown bag lunches -- many containing unhealthy, processed foods. But that is not justification for calling Jamie Oliver's program a failure. Parents are free to pack whatever they want in their child's lunch bags. But our public schools should not be feeding our children processed foods loaded with sugar, salt, preservatives and other additives. For the most part, that goal has been accomplished in Cabell County.

There clearly are problems that still need to be worked out, especially with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But it will take time for that to happen. Those who feel the need to rush to judgment should realize that this is more of a marathon than a sprint, and that many solutions will require sweeping action from the highest levels of government -- action that won't come overnight.

In addition to funding the school lunch changes, Cabell Huntington Hospital provided $50,000 to Ebenezer Medical Outreach to help pay the rent and utilities at Huntington's Kitchen for a year, so anyone in the community can learn how to prepare healthy, cost-effective meals from scratch. US Foodservice is donating a year's worth of food for the kitchen, and more help is needed to continue its mission, but Huntington's Kitchen is operating well and offering at least 16 cooking classes each week.

Early on, Cabell Huntington Hospital recognized the value and importance of investing in Jamie Oliver's efforts. But in order to be effective nationwide, his programs will need the support of many other businesses and major employers. We shouldn't rely entirely on the government to solve this problem.

Additionally, this revolution will require broad support from parents, churches and communities across our country. Jamie Oliver could easily have paid for these programs in Huntington himself, but that wouldn't have proved anything. To work on a large scale, this needs to be a sustainable movement, valued and supported by every community.

Success or failure? Long-term, it's too early to tell. But in the early stages of this marathon, I'd say it's been a tremendous success. We still have about 25 miles of this 26-mile journey to go, but at least we have a very good start to work from.

Brent A. Marsteller is president and chief executive officer of Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington.



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