HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The final episode of “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” airs tonight, but the Southern Baptist church that sparked the ABC mini-series enjoyed a sneak preview at its midweek service April 21.
Some of the scenes in the finale will look familiar: They were filmed in the parking lot of suburban First Baptist Church of Kenova the afternoon of April 13.
Billed as a “Cooking Boot Camp,” the event had the feel of a community festival. First Baptist roped off the parking lot and set up several tents for healthy cooking demonstrations and pep talks by British chef Jamie Oliver.
First Baptist teaching pastor Steve Willis worked in a tent where Oliver showed parents how to pack healthy lunches. Willis created fruit-based smoothies that included yogurt and nuts.
“I’m glad it’s wrapping up,” Willis said of the attention generated by the six-week reality TV show. “Dozens of churches — not just in America, but throughout the world — are calling and sending me e-mails, saying, ‘What are you guys doing? We’ve got the same problem here.’”
While Oliver has become a local celebrity thanks to the visibility of the national broadcast, his visit originated with First Baptist. The church instituted exercise classes after a fall 2008 report from the Centers for Disease Control listed the Huntington area as the nation’s unhealthiest.
“We knew it was a problem,” Willis said, “because I was in the hospital all the time, seeing people die from obesity-related diseases or having all these surgeries. We had the most obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, gum disease, sleep habits and the worst exercise habits.”
After Willis preached about obesity, 40 people answered an altar call to enlist in its “Biggest Loser” program. Despite its success, Willis later told his wife he didn’t know anything about proper eating.
Last year, the day after he prayed, “Lord, I need somebody to come in and teach nutrition,” Oliver’s production crew called. They had read a story online about the church’s health initiative and wanted to help.
“The fact they called the next day — I knew God was sending the guy here,” Willis said. The Food Revolution series has generated curiosity seekers, including a couple from London who wanted to meet Willis. Visitors from other nations and states also have shown up, making the church a bit of a tourist attraction, the pastor said. Sunday attendance averages about 400.
While the public spotlight will fade after the April 23 finale, the church’s healthy emphasis will continue. In addition to opening its family life center three hours a day for walking, First Baptist hosts aerobics on Monday nights and Zumba classes on Tuesdays.
Collectively, participants in its exercise program have shed a ton of weight, including one woman who has lost 75 pounds and another who dropped 70. Church member Stacie Edwards, whose family was featured prominently in the first two episodes, has lost 20 pounds. Her husband Tim also has lost 20 and son Justin is 35 pounds lighter.
Though initially skeptical of Oliver’s efforts, Stacie Edwards said she is off medications she had been taking and is much happier today. The family recently dug up the fryer it buried during the first episode in order to clear the ground for a vegetable garden.
“Jamie was there and backed us up for so many weeks,” Edwards said. “He was in our lives for three months. It seemed like it woke me up. I think that’s what I needed, to be awakened and humbled.”
Barbara Hicks, one of the cooks who prepare meals for Wednesday night dinners at the church, said the Food Revolution has made her more aware of the need to choose healthier products.
The menu for the April 21 fellowship dinner includes hot chicken salad, lettuce topped with herbed tomatoes, oven-roasted asparagus and French bread.
Hicks said the crew now fixes more salads and uses fewer mayonnaise-based dressings, roasts vegetables and has cut out the use of most canola oil and butter. A widow who lives alone, Hicks said in the past she was tempted to grab a sandwich at home but instead makes a salad or fresh entrée.
“I’ve just become more aware it is better to eat healthy food than to have all that fat in the arteries,” Hicks said.
Longtime First Baptist member Richard Lykins said he has purchased a treadmill, is taking more hikes with his family and is choosing water over soda.
A supervisor at an area chemical plant, Lykins said he has had to make an effort to eat healthier at work because when men cook there the food is often fattening. Crediting a recent five-pound weight loss to awareness spread by the church’s emphasis and Jamie Oliver’s show, Lykins said the changes have been “great.”
“I think it’s sparked everyone to be accountable for their health and to take care of themselves and their family,” Lykins said. “I think it’s going to help not only now, but generations from now.”
Church member Jane Galloway, who helps supervise those who walk at the family life center on Monday mornings, hopes the changes will filter down to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“You have to start small and do it all your life,” said Galloway, whose mother and some relatives died at a young age because of heart disease. “We have a lot of unhealthy children. I have a grandchild who lives on chicken nuggets, so I’m hoping this will affect her. We’ve got to start young and bring ’em up right.”
At the other end of the age scale, Willis can already see a change. Despite one of the area’s harshest winters in years, he didn’t officiate at any funerals in recent months where a death was related to obesity.
In the past, “It seemed like every other week I was doing a funeral of somebody who was dying before their time,” the pastor said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Walker is a writer in Huntington, W.Va., who wrote the recent Biblical Recorder series on church security.)