Doug Sheils is the Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, W.Va. He is not happy about the media's portrayal of his town, and he takes it personally.
"I've lived here pretty much all of my life, all of my family is here. I love the city of Huntington," he says about the West Virginia town that is the focus of ABC's reality TV show Food Revolution, featuring celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's attempts to lower the city's obesity rate. "It's a great area and the people here are wonderful," adds Sheils, "and it upsets me when shots are taken at our area unfairly."
The unfair shots Sheils is referring to include a 2008 article by Associated Press reporter Mike Stobee, which labeled Huntington as the "fattest city in America," as well as ABC promos for Food Revolution which claim nearly half the city of Huntington is obese. Not to mention the scores of articles and television reports repeating the "fattest" and "most unhealthy" labels.
"All I've been asking for since the very beginning is that this story be covered accurately," says Sheils. "I've embraced Jamie Oliver and his efforts with open arms. I think what he's been doing is great, and our hospital has generously supported all of his efforts."
"But, this story should be told accurately; the truth is important. A lot of people are thinking, ‘Well, you know, that's not an important detail. You guys are fat, so, you know, what are you arguing about?' We do have a problem with obesity, but we don't deserve the title that has been given to us, and all of the scorn and ridicule and animosity that has come with that title. Journalists should cover this story accurately."
Sheils believes Food Revolution's producers portrayed him and two other local healthcare public relations directors unfairly in one of the show's scenes.
And he may have a point. He says their two-hour meeting with Oliver, called to discuss the "most unhealthy city" claim, was boiled down to about two minutes of television and gave viewers the incorrect impression that the three were against his efforts in Huntington, unwilling to help and only concerned with the city's image.
"We had no idea really what Jamie specifically had been doing in town at that time," says Sheils. "We didn't know what he was doing at Central City Elementary School downtown, or at Huntington Kitchen. We certainly didn't have any idea that he needed our help. That issue was never brought to light before, and we certainly didn't know he was going to ask us for $150,000 with cameras rolling."
Important Details Left Out
Most media coverage of Huntington since the 2008 AP article, including the April 16 episode of Food Revolution, leaves out some important details about the waistlines of Huntington residents, Sheils says.
The AP story in question used data from a 2006 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that lists the five-county metropolitan statistical area (MSA) around Huntington – and not the city itself – as having the highest rate of obesity in the country. Sheils points out that the counties surrounding Cabell County all have higher rates of obesity than Cabell's 31 percent, according to the USDA's Food Atlas.
"Also, the data is from 2006," says Sheils. "What about 2007, 2008, 2009 data when this MSA was not the highest in obesity in the country? It's 2010. Why are we being picked out when in subsequent years other areas have surpassed us? There's been no spotlight shined on these other areas."
Additionally, Sheils notes that his hospital – portrayed as the skeptical antagonist in the April 16 episode – had taken steps to reduce obesity prior to ABC and Oliver arriving in town. "There was enough truth in that report that it hurt," he says about the 2006 CDC data, and people in the city knew they needed to address the problem.
Addressing The Problem
Among the efforts made to address the problem, Cabell Huntington Hospital teamed up with the local NBC affiliate television station and the Huntington YMCA for an initiative called "Healthy Tri-state."
The outreach effort includes a local version of NBC's Biggest Loser show where all 40 contestants receive free medical care and diagnostic testing from the hospital. Cabell Huntington has also partnered with the Huntington Mall to build a new large playground and health information center.
Sheils says the hospital offers multiple free health screenings each month; "We were doing lots of things before Jamie came."
"I don't want anyone to get the impression that Jamie Oliver and I are at odds," he says. "We've become good friends. I talked to him last week for an hour or so when he was in town. I truly believe in what he is doing, I think he's really at the cusp of making some significant changes in America for the positive. It really bothers me that some people think that I'm against him, or that I'm a villain in some way, and trying to hold back this effort. Because that never was the case."
The finale of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution airs tomorrow night (April 23) on ABC stations.