The Food Network has covered food education and activism for several years by organizing a more intimate and accessible educational event and product expo, away from the main festival, that is geared to helping families explore these very topics in a fun, nonpreachy way.

This year, Kohl’s “Fun and Fit as a Family” event and Kellogg’s “Kidz Kitchen” returned to Miami’s South Beach in late February and showed approximately 12,000 kids and parents that food and fitness are approachable, and that they can be a lot of fun. Many celebrity chefs, culinary personalities and health and fitness professionals came together for 2 days of interactive family learning about shopping for and preparing healthy food, about what whole foods and farm-to-table ingredients are all about and about growing produce at home and achieving family fitness.

The Fun and Fit as a Family event welcomed a virtual who’s who of chefs and culinary talent, including chefs Jamie Oliver, Michelle Bernstein and Adrianne Calvo, Iron Chef Cat Cora, Melissa d’Arabian and Marcela Valladolid. They all led interactive classes in the Whole Foods Market® Food Lab that allowed kids to participate in intimate, hands-on cooking experiences that maximized the learning opportunity.

Another live cooking aspect of the family event is the Kellogg’s Kidz Kitchen, providing a kitchen stadium atmosphere where hundreds of attendees watched recipe demonstrations by their favorite Food Network stars, including Rachael Ray, Guy Fieri, Giada De Laurentiis, Rocco DiSpirito, Duff Goldman and Tyler Florence. An expo full of healthy products, samples and exercise demos rounded out the experience.

At both the main festival and the family event, chefs and Food Network show hosts were impressively articulate about educational issues while they entertained and cooked for the audience, but especially so in a series of thoughtful video interviews conducted by the Associated Press’s food editor J.M. Hirsch. Hirsch interviewed a number of high-profile personalities in the food world, all of whom talked plainly—and at times, sharply—about the nation’s challenges surrounding food and obesity. This was not typical celebrity fluff. The questions were incisive and well-rooted in Hirsch’s experience on the front lines of the food world. The answers were gloves-off.

The interviews are eye-opening. In particular, make some time especially to watch the interviews with Oliver, who is perhaps the most visible and vocal about childhood obesity issues through his Food Revolution reality TV show, website and unabashed activism; Ray, who lobbied with Oliver to get the Child Nutrition bill passed through Congress earlier this year and whose Yum-O! Foundation continues its impressive outreach to kids and families on such issues; and d’Arabian, who has a finance background, is a mother of four young girls and hosts Food Network’s Ten Dollar Dinners—and who tells Hirsch the poignant story of how a school lunch program when she was a 7-year-old quite possibly changed the trajectory of her life.

While there have always been chefs who cook with a “healthy” profile, the last 3–5 years have delivered more mainstream chefs taking up the cause, said Hirsch in a telephone interview. “This is not chefs just writing the random healthy cookbook; they are making it the mainstay of what they do.

“In American culture right now we have unprecedented coverage and awareness of food,” he observed. “Like never before, we’re thinking about the food we’re putting in our mouths. It’s in the news every day. It’s become a political issue that’s central to the Obama administration. That awareness is putting it in the minds of consumers. A smart celebrity chef is going to cue into that. But I think for many of them, it’s also personal, because they’re consumers as well. [Chefs] Art Smith and Rocco DiSpirito are perfect examples of this. Here are two guys who didn’t lead healthy lifestyles before, but who adopted a healthier lifestyle for themselves before making it a part of their career. And kind of having ‘seen the light,’ they’ve decided to make that the thrust of what they do professionally.”

While this is not exactly new territory (people like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have been talking about these issues for a long time), such topics have become accessible to consumers and acceptable for the average consumer to discuss. The issues that Waters and Pollan have talked about at length—artisanal, organic foods, locally sourced, humanely raised and prepared with care and respect—have pervaded the American consciousness.

“It’s why Whole Foods is such a successful chain now,” Hirsch said. “It’s why you can get artisanal and organic products in Walmart. While you can certainly buy plenty of unhealthy artisanal and organic foods, the reality is that Americans are thinking much more about what they’re putting in their bodies. We are for the first time having a national dialogue about our food, and that entails everything: food safety, food quality, sustainability. All of these issues are now becoming part of mainstream conversation. Once you start having those conversations, it’s a short distance to get to the health aspects of it. That’s where the chefs come in. If we’re going to talk about sustainability of food, we have to talk about the sustainability of your body as well.”

Web Extra: Video