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Jamie Oliver takes on America's 'fattest town'

LOS ANGELES — In the film We Are Marshall, the town of Huntington, W.Va., reels, then regroups after most of Marshall University's football team is killed in a plane crash. Forty years later, Huntington is at the center of yet another potential turnaround tale. Only this time, rather than a phoenix emerging from the ashes, the image is more of a grilled chicken breast rising from a landfill of deep fryers.

In Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, the boyish and preternaturally media-friendly British food guru known for a while as "The Naked Chef" because of his penchant for simple food, comes to Huntington in the hopes of transforming the unhealthiest town — i.e. the fattest town — in America. After overhauling the menus for the British school system, and with half a dozen TV shows to his credit, Oliver seems just the man for the job.

In the first episode — which ABC aired twice last week — after a brief wrangle with a hostile local radio talk show host, he attempts to slay the dragon of the local school lunch. It's a brilliant move, narratively speaking. Not only do we meet all the fabulous "lunch ladies," but we discover there isn't a person alive who won't joyfully bash school cafeteria food.

When Oliver arrives, the kids are all enjoying a hearty breakfast of pizza and/or sugary cereal doused in chocolate or strawberry milk.

"I've never seen pizza served for breakfast," Oliver says in horror (and a tiny bit of hypocrisy — his Web site includes a pizza he calls "perfect" for breakfast; it includes grapes and pine nuts, which the Huntington breakfast pizza most certainly does not.)

Despite an accent that is usually referred to in the United Kingdom as "mockney" and the product-tousled hair that men of his age seem to favor, Oliver is eminently and instantly likable. He might in fact wind up being reality TV's most engaging star, equally comfortable talking to people and the camera, capable of evoking and handling an emotional moment with a winning combination of self- confidence and humility.

Many of the people Oliver met in the first episode are, of course, skeptical, bordering on hostile. This being TV, it's difficult to know how much of the tension is scripted — obviously Huntington invited Oliver and his experiment — but that doesn't mean the issues Oliver is dealing with aren't real.

No matter where you live, processed food is cheaper and easier to prepare than fresh, and the reason cafeteria food is unhealthful is often because of cost, ease of preparation and children's natural aversion to anything that doesn't include a dipping sauce.

The schools are just the first step in Oliver's revolution. He also plans to teach the community how to prepare healthful meals that "don't cost the earth."

The show has the potential to be powerful stuff. Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution is showing rather than telling and offering a healthful alternative for people without a lot of money or free time.

Still, it's tricky work being a savior. In addition to his small media empire, Oliver runs a program that trains at-risk kids to become chefs, so he does put his money where his mouth is. But when he offers one of the Edwards boys a few one-on-one lessons in the kitchen and possibly a future as one of his chefs, the boy's eyes light up, reminding us and, one hopes, Oliver, that it isn't just junk food weighing down small-town America, but it's also a loss of jobs and possibility.

Like it or not, Oliver represents more than just healthful eating — as he has made clear in countless interviews, he is a small-town boy who didn't do well in school. But with some talent in the kitchen, a lot of personal magnetism and hard work, he has managed to become rich and something of a hero.

That kind of magic is radiant, tantalizing, and difficult to teach.