Bending American Food Culture

by Sandy Todd Webster on Jun 28, 2013


A bold new initiative launched recently to examine the future of food and the challenges facing our country in terms of health, health care, the environment and our food systems.

Reworking the approach to a challenge often leads to a solution. When the road less taken is collaborative and joins experts from diverse specialties, it can be either a disaster or a recipe for real creativity and problem solving. In the case of the inaugural 2013 Menus of Change National Leadership Summit, it was a formula for what presenter June Jo Lee, MA, vice president of strategic insights for The Hartman Group, Inc., called culture bending.

The event, a joint initiative of the Culinary Institute of America® (CIA) and the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), put intense focus on the business of healthy, sustainable and delicious food choices.

Framed that way, it sounds simpler than it is, especially since food may well be the most complex social issue of our time. Held June 10-12 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the summit convened 300 public health educators and academics, professional chefs, restaurateurs, food scientists, investors, and individuals representing major food companies and food governing boards. These somewhat strange bedfellows spent 2-1/2 days in think tank mode discussing the convergence between public health, environmental and social imperatives, the culinary arts and innovation within the business of foodservice.

The story between the lines, however, was how the American obesity epidemic—the most dire health crisis of our time—ties to food and what change this collection of experts might be able to effect.

"It has been exciting to see the leaders from different sectors—foodservice, the environment, nutrition science and busines—interact with such drive and commitment," said Tim Ryan, EdD, CMC, and president of the CIA. "Menus of Change is helping them find common ground at the intersection of some of the most pervasive issues that face our industry and our world, and we are setting a meaningful course of action toward solutions."

The timing of the conference was prescient without meaning to be. Just 1 week later, the American Medical Association declared obesity a disease, a controversial move that essentially means 1/3 of US adults and 17 million American children are sick and require medical treatment. The role of food in this drama is powerful and will be fascinating to watch unfurl. Much of the conversation at this event could prove to be pivotal in the way we approach the challenges before us.

Food as a Primary Health Driver: The Fitness Pro's Role

“Food is a lens through which we see the world, and increasingly our vision is focused on our health, the health of communities and that of our planet,” says the opening statement of the Menus of Change overview. “Our food choices—linked as they are to both acute and chronic disease prevention and control—are a primary driver of our health. These same choices affect the livelihoods of more than one billion people around the world who work each day to produce and serve our food.”

During her presentation, Lee asked the audience where it thought most of the public was getting their information about food and nutrition. People called out answers such as “Dr. Oz! The internet?” She acknowledged these were valid responses, but then revealed the one that her research has confirmed as the top source: “Fitness trainers.”

As an industry we have much to explore in this realm and we have distinct scope of practice lines to mind, but we have an amazing opportunity to effect change. By joining with public health officials, chefs, nutrition professionals, those formulating our food, and by being aware of the social and environmental responsibility we all have as world citizens, perhaps we we can directly affect the outcome.

A Dashboard for Change

Central to the conference’s program was the first Menus of Change Annual Report and State of the Plate dashboard, co-created by CIA and HSPH. Its GPS-like narrative discusses the reshaping of the food industry by concerns about obesity and healthcare costs, how food is produced and sourced, and our declining global resources.

The report includes a 13-point analysis of issues at the convergence of public health, the environment and the business of food. Developed in collaboration with leading scientists and business experts—the initiative's Scientific and Technical Advisory Council (chaired by Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health) and Sustainable Business Leadership Council—the report provides evidence-based strategies for foodservice executives. Its "Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus" section gives business leaders guidance to navigate game-changing food-related issues.

"This first report presents the base and structure for the viable tracking of dietary quality in America," said Willett. "We will continue to research, review and report on these important health and environmental issues, explore strategies, and offer promising solutions to food-linked environmental challenges, unacceptably high obesity and chronic disease rates, and other public health imperatives."

An expanded feature story on Menus of Change will appear in the September issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

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About the Author

Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster IDEA Author/Presenter

Sandy Todd Webster is Editor in Chief of IDEA's publications, including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL and IDEA FOOD & NUTRITION TIPS, the industry's leading resources for fitness, wellness and nutrition professionals worldwide. Sandy joined IDEA in 2001 as executive editor of IDEA PERSONAL TRAINER and IDEA FITNESS MANAGER magazines and was promoted to lead the editorial team in 2003. More than 20 years in magazine publishing, marketing communications and creative services have shaped her straightforward approach to multi-channel communication. Early experience in Los Angeles as a sports writer/reporter, and then enriching years as a managing editor in allied health care publishing have pulled her across a spectrum of stimulating subject matter. Fitness, health and nutrition reside at the perfect center of this content continuum, she feels. A Chicago native, Sandy grew up fully engaged in various competitive sports. Her drive and dedication as an athlete translate to a disciplined work ethic and unwavering approach to challenge in her career. Shortly after graduating journalism school from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, she was recruited to L.A. for her first post in magazine publishing. After two decades of working on magazines--and now in the throes of applying the unbelieveable multi-media content delivery options available in the magazine 2.0 world--she is still "completely in love" with the creative process it takes to deliver meaningful, inspirational content to end users. She is an accomplished home cook and gardner who would love to combine those skills and passions with her health and fitness background to continue educating readers about a well-balanced, healthy lifestyle.