The Dish on Recipe for Success

Gracie’s latest on the Dish

The Dish on Recipe for Success.

First Lady Michelle Obama, catalyst and creator of the “Let’s Move” campaign (focused on eliminating childhood obesity epidemic within a generation) and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack just announced the first big changes to school lunches in 15 years.

“Improving the quality of the school meals is a critical step in building a healthy future for our kids,” Secretary Vilsack.

Recipe For Success Foundation’s mission statement – combating childhood obesity by changing the way children understand, appreciate and eat their food- is firmly aligned with the new USDA ruling.  Both campaig for those who do not yet have the power to advocate for themselves: children.

The rule – which phases in changes so as to allow all children (grades K-12), schools and food supply chains to adapt- will require most schools to “increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk and reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat” (Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, Vol. 77, No. 17).

The government ruling, although widely praised and long sought after, isn’t necessarily a “eureka” kind of moment for many; the results of the ruling  – largely based on recommendations and backed by research issued by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science- outline changes that could be viewed simply as common sense, describing a simpler diet with an emphasis on vegetables and fruits rather than processed foods high in saturated fat and sugar. While this seemingly novel diet may be relatively easy to achieve on an individual level, it is a mammoth of a task to accomplish on a national level, especially in a sector where the consumer (in this case, schoolchildren) gains most of his or her food knowledge and eating habits from a very limited environment – the school lunchroom.

With public figures such as First Lady Michelle Obama and celebrity chefs from Alice Waters to Rachel Ray crusading for this national cause, a glimmer of hope – in the form of brightly colored veggies and fruits – seems to be peeking through the obscurity that was once a mound of colorless mystery meat.

A lot of children – especially those who qualify for school meal programs- eat two meals a day in the school lunchroom.  In Houston ISD alone that means 80% of our students (or 161,600 children) will benefit.   This mostly untapped corner of the education world can have a major impact on a child’s relationship with food by introducing healthier dishes in a familiar setting. But the 16,000 children who have participated in RFS Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™ program in the last six years will be ready.  They already love their veggies!
I can’t wait for the school cafeteria to become an extension of our RFS classrooms.

The Devil is in the Details

President Obama has declared that September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. There is a lot to be aware of.  Our kids are fat and getting fatter.  Despite an increase in attention, advocacy, action and media spotlight directed at the problem and its attendant health risks, the needle hasn’t budged in the last year or so.  On the other hand, much really good work that has potential for long-term impact has been done.  We all celebrated a recent triumph when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which made landmark changes to the school nutrition landscape.  New rules and guidelines will effect 50 million kids.   Read the rest of this entry

Let’s Take Back Our Food

Food has been at the center of our lives since the dawn of mankind.  It was food that drove us from our caves to explore the world.  Food fueled trade, motivated curiosity, invention, travel and wars.  Food was even responsible for the discovery of America.  Columbus was in search of spices for a demanding European palate, not a new continent.  Life revolves around the availability of food and the capricious weather cycles that govern it.  A new industry emerged after World War II that used science and technology in an attempt to harness nature and smooth the bumps between feast and famine.  Now, there are more than 10,000 new processed food products introduced to the market each year; reality television has turned cooking into entertainment; and we are eating ourselves silly.  There have been unintended consequences.

For generations, family traditions and our best childhood memories have centered on food.  But sadly in the 21st century, many of us have lost our connection to real food, its source and history.  What happens when we subtract awareness and traditional meaning from food and take away the wonderful gift of having time to sit for daily meals with our friends and family?  Besides a loss of culture and social bonding, we now see how this disconnection has triggered waves of unhealthy effects ripping through our society, the most prevalent of these being obesity and the chronic diseases that result from it.

Americans are suffering from the explosive effects of a spiraling obesity epidemic. Between 1980 and 2000 obesity rates doubled and continue to climb briskly.  Today, 2/3 of us are already overweight or at risk for obesity. That means as a nation, we need to lose 4.6 billion pounds.  Researchers predict that 41% of us will be morbidly obese by 2015.  The crisis has invaded even our children’s lives. 1/3 of them — that means 20 million American kids today are significantly overweight or already obese.  I’m not talking baby fat and cute pudgy arms.  Unless we get control, this will be the first generation of kids that don’t outlive their parents.  Let me be clear:  May even die before their parents. It is not just fat weighing us down.  The financial and human costs of obesity are growing at an alarming rate & soon will outpace our ability to deal with them.

Weight related health issues cost the country $147 billion in medical bills in 2008–double the amount a decade ago. Obesity accounts for nearly 10% of all medical spending.  Costs are expanding as fast as our waistlines.

Obesity is a stealth killer.  These 20 million children, the ones with a problem today, have a much higher risk of type II diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, liver disease, kidney failure and cancer.  These diseases are striking them now as early as 6 years old.  Catastrophic diseases that kick in this early will keep millions of this generation out of the workplace and will kill them young.   There are plenty of contributing factors that exacerbate this problem, but the core cause is what we eat and how we eat it.

In the mid nineties, I began to unravel the remarkable changes in our food system during the last twenty years: the industrialization of farming, an explosion of the snack food industry and ensuing sophistication of manipulated food, the multi-layer processing of the simplest food items, the design of a food distribution system that valued ease of shipping above all other factors.  Today’s diet is not about fresh fruits and vegetables harvested in season, distributed locally and prepared from scratch at home.  No, most daily American diets consist of high-calorie food made of sugar, fat and compelling flavors, but few nutrients, that is all dressed up as convenience or coolness personified, and marketed 24/7.  In fact 1/3 of Americans eat fast food every single day.

The more I learned, the more I realized: This is a WAR.  A complex war . . . .we are not facing one enemy. From the powerful marketing influences of junk food makers, to increased television watching and time spent at computers, to decreased exercise, increase in processed food consumption and the demise of the family meal. The enemy is all around us and we are complicit.  But lets just focus on food for now.

Farm subsidies launched 35 years ago to feed a hungry nation triggered a profusion of cheap corn.  Cheap corn syrup ignited an explosion of processed foods, and cheap corn feed created a new paradigm for livestock farming that flooded the market with inexpensive, low quality meats.  Cut-rate resources drove high profit product development for a few powerful manufacturing businesses and fast food chains.

Food companies have figured out how to make our mouths water. These new foods are not easy to figure out—they look just like what we have always eaten, but are dramatically different with added chemicals controlling everything from appearance to taste and smell in recipes that create a neurochemical addiction. Over time, these hyperpalatable foods change our brain chemistry in ways that make us overeat.

To sell all this junk, powerful media campaigns extol a new culture of eating.  Food marketing is bombarding us at every turn—there is no safe haven. Advertising triggers what psychologists call the brain’s “click-whirr” response. Food advertising that promotes snacking, fun, happiness, and excitement directly contributes to increased food intake. The tradition of sitting down to three formal meals each day has melted into all day grazing. It’s now socially acceptable to eat at anytime.

We are like lambs to the slaughter.

I hope to use my bully pulpit on “this small planet” to address the solutions to our current system of food injustice and encourage you to join me in the conversation.  It’s time to take back our food!