Jamie Oliver Trims the (Fiscal) Fat

Michelle Obama may have been the first person to kick off the decade with an anti-obesity program. But she isn’t the last. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has targeted overweight kids in the unhealthiest city in America, and is looking to change them from the inside out. But the ripple effect of his efforts could extend far beyond shrinking the bulging bellies of Huntington, W. Va.’s citizens; ultimately, slimming down could mean fattening up their wallets. The reason is simple: Obesity leads to a lot of otherwise unnecessary medical spending.

The Initial Ingredients

In 2008, an Associated Press article named Huntington the unhealthiest city in America based on 2006 CDC data. Over 45 percent of the Huntington metropolitan area was obese, with only 23 percent of residents at a healthy weight. Given that an obese person can generate as much as $29,000 in added medical costs over a lifetime, Huntington had more than just a health problem on its hands. It was feeding a fiscal money pit.

Oliver swooped in from his home in England last fall charged and aiming to change the eating habits of Huntington’s children – a bet on the city’s future well being. His progress is being documented on the ABC reality show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” But some of Huntington’s residents find his presence and his food hard to swallow. They don’t like being broadcast as America’s unhealthiest city, and so far Oliver has had a hard time getting kids to eat the healthier options he provided.

In the first episode, viewers are treated to a cafeteria full of kids eating pizza for breakfast. These children don’t know how to tell a tomato from a potato, and they seem wholly uninterested in milk unless it’s pink. Oliver is fond of pointing out that most of the food consumed by the area’s residents comes in some variation of brown – and in huge servings. “The portions in both our countries are completely out of control. Add to that, most of the food is processed crap and you can see how we got to this crisis point,” he said.

But residents didn’t appreciate being told by an outsider to change their lifelong eating habits, and they were skeptical that fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods could be acquired on their minimal budgets. Because the poverty level in Huntington far exceeds the national average, residents thought Oliver was being unrealistic.

Despite the push back, Oliver has reason to believe he can have an impact – a similar effort he undertook in his home country ultimately resulted in a complete overhaul of the United Kingdom’s school food program. Since his menu was implemented, health related absenteeism is down and test scores are up in schools across the U.K. “It’s not easy and it takes time,” Oliver said. “We’ve been doing this for five years in England and we’re only halfway there. It’s worth it though.” There’s no question that, if successful, Oliver’s project will make the residents of Huntington healthier. It could also make them wealthier.

Fat-Trimming Potential

That’s because obesity increases the rates of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, sleep apnea, osteoarthritis, and a host of other health problems; and all of these ailments cost a lot to treat. Nationwide, treatment for medical problems related to obesity costs over $90 billion per year. That’s a lot of fat to trim.

At the outset, though, many residents resisted Oliver and seemed suspicious of his hip dorkiness. “We don’t want to sit around and eat lettuce all day,” a local radio personality declared when Jamie went on his show to promote his project. His initial interactions with the school cooks (or “lunch ladies,” as he once called one of them, to his lasting detriment) yielded little progress in altering kids’ diets. It was obvious that Oliver’s battle of the bulge was an uphill challenge.

Former Huntington mayor David Felinton felt the city couldn’t focus on outlying concerns like better diets because of more pressing problems stemming from the area’s depressed economy. “[Health] doesn’t come up,” Felinton told the AP in 2008. “We’ve got a lot of economic challenges here in Huntington. That’s usually the focus.”

But according to Oliver, understanding the positive impact that healthy eating can have on a society’s overall well being, including its economy, is central to his mission. “That’s the entire point, isn’t it? Both of our countries spend too much time treating diseases from obesity that could be easily prevented with food education and cooking skills. It’s so simple,” he said.

Obesity in the city of Huntington alone, excluding the surrounding areas, could cost almost $400 million over a generation, or $8,000 per citizen. And that’s for a population of only 49,000, whose fiscal 2011 budget stands at $40.2 million.

The costs of obesity are borne by individuals, insurance companies, and the government. These costs account for over 9 percent of all medical expenditure nationwide. Medicare and Medicaid shoulder roughly half of the burden, which comes to about $180 per year for every citizen.

How much could a thinner populace save? If Oliver can manage to bring obesity levels in Huntington down to the 1960 national level, when only 13.4 percent of Americans were obese (compared with 35.1 percent in the most recent CDC analysis), over 4,000 children living in Huntington today who would have been obese no longer will suffer that fate. That translates into nearly $76 million saved in medical costs, and $70 million fewer American tax dollars that would need to be allocated to the medical problems generated by the city’s obese individuals.

That, coupled with the prospect of a longer, healthier life, might just sway people to change their ways.

“People only embrace change when the pain of not changing becomes bigger than the pain of the change,” said Oliver. “I think that’s where we are now.”