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Bending American Food Culture

Does it matter that nobody seems to know how to cook anymore? Can anything be done about the dangers of industrial farming? How should we respond to the possibility that, largely because of chronic health issues caused by junk food, America’s young people might not outlive their parents?

That’s just a short list of the serious challenges created by the way we eat today. While fitness professionals are committed to—even obsessed with—fighting obesity and encouraging people to eat healthfully, is that commitment enough to surmount these problems? Or are they simply too big to address?

Decisively not, judging from the brainpower gathered at the inaugural 2013 Menus of Change™ National Leadership Summit, where experts representing every link in America’s food chain assembled for an exercise in culture bending, as presenter June Jo Lee, MA, vice president of strategic insights for The Hartman Group, described it.

The summit, a joint initiative of the Culinary Institute of America® (CIA) and the nutrition department of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), was held June 10–12 in Cambridge, Massachusetts; it convened 300 public health educators and academics, professional chefs, restaurateurs, food scientists, investors and representatives of major food companies and food governing boards. They were there to focus intensely on the business of healthy, sustainable and delicious food choices. Framed that way, it sounds simple, but it may well be the most complex social issue of our time.

As attendees shifted into think-tank mode to discuss the convergence of public health, environmental and social imperatives, the culinary arts, and innovation in the foodservice industry, one theme was never far from their minds: What to do about the connections between our food system and the American obesity epidemic.

“It has been exciting to see the leaders from different sectors—food service, the environment, nutrition science and business—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 call that essentially means one-third of U.S. adults and 17% of American children are sick and require medical treatment. The role of food in this drama is powerful, and watching it unfurl will be fascinating. Much of the conversation at the summit could prove to be pivotal in the way we approach the challenges before us.

Bending Culture

Experts in food service, health science and social change presented topics relevant to what today’s health- and environment-conscious consumers expect from corporations, foodservice operators and business leaders.

Lee launched into her general session keynote, “The Next Seating: How Changing Demographics Are Affecting Consumer Demand and ‘The Art of the Possible,’” by saying she was impressed by the conference’s purpose. “You’re here trying to do something pretty radical. You’re trying to bend culture.” Perhaps no one could better explain the significance of that than a woman who makes her living as a food ethnographer, studying consumption habits and attitudes about food at the source—up-close and personal inside people’s homes.

Takeaways relevant to fitness professionals—from a sea of thoughtful information imparted over the course of the summit—are included in the following five points:

1. Millennials Will Lead Change

Christopher Gardner, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Stanford, Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appétit Management, and Lee herself all suggested that Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000, also known as Generation Y) are the newest force shaping food culture—and with good reason. According to Lee, they account for 30% of our population, a demographic 6% larger even than Baby Boomers, the most influential U.S. cultural force of all time.

Characteristics that frame Gen Y food attitudes stem from a belief in authenticity. “This doesn’t mean ‘better than,’” Lee said. “It simply means ‘real.’ [Millennials] believe in transparency, not top-down conversation. They whip out phones and seek.” Other Gen Y facts from Lee:

  • Their tastes are wide-ranging. They are not interested in fat, sugar or salt—they want experience, diversity and ethnic food.
  • They spend their disposable income on food because it’s participatory.
  • They enjoy cooking, but know how to make only a few dishes; for the most part, they say, they don’t have time to cook.

Gen Y groups really care about changing the world, noted Bauccio, whose company provides food service to corporations, universities and museums in 32 states. “They also believe that what they eat says a lot about who they are. They want to celebrate a connected global community. It’s also about experiential food. It’s not so much about fine dining,” he said.

He also notes that technology, a lifeline for Millennials, is going to play a “huge role in the food experience.” Bon Appétit is experimenting with pop-up restaurants, street markets, food trucks—anything that moves the location of the food and changes the experience. This caters to the unplanned, on-the-fly “casual collisions” that hallmark Gen Y socializing, where connection happens through a quick text, a Tweet or an instant message on Facebook. Micro data trackers for personal health monitoring will also play a role in shaping what comes next in food, Bauccio said.

Gardner used Stanford University dining service’s transformation, driven in large part by student demand, as a prime example of the impact that Millennials have already had on food: “Stanford has elevated its line cooks to culinary artist status,” he said. “Food sourcing and the supply chain have changed to favor local, environmentally sustainable and socially responsible [items].” Referring to the Menus of Change Annual Report and Dashboard (see the sidebars), he said, “They are looking for a set of guidelines exactly like this.”

2. Chefs Will Drive Healthier Food Choices

Julio Frenk, MD, dean of faculty at the HSPH, thinks chefs and foodservice people “can be agents of change by shaping the environment in a way that enables a healthy choice.”

The “local” movement shows the power of the chef to change thinking, said Arlin S. Wasserman, chair of Menus of Change’s Sustainable Business Leadership Council. “[Local] was a chef-driven movement. It is now driving school food, grocery store food and government policy. This sense of terroir has driven fruit and vegetable consumption in schools and institutions. It has saved many small farms.”

Imagine that same influence spread across the food spectrum and consider that, according to Lee, 77% of the American diet involves prepared food. Whether it’s the school lunch your child eats every day or the “fresh” packaged meal you get from Trader Joe’s® or your local grocery store, guess who is formulating that food for you? A chef.

Victor Gielisse, DBA, CMC, and vice president of advancement and business development for the CIA, feels that what chefs know best is how to build flavor—a make-or-break point in healthier food options. “Delicious, healthy food starts with great ingredients and sensible cooking techniques that build and layer flavor. That takes time,” he said. “In our society we have gone too far. We are too good at producing massive amounts of food of poor quality that taste good.”

Sam Kass, executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and assistant White House chef, pointed out two key actions that all chefs can take now to improve U.S. food: “First, serve more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Second, . . . teach the country how to cook again. When people learn how to cook, their appreciation for food and flavor go up,” he said. “If every chef could do a Chefs Move to Schools program (local chefs volunteer within Let’s Move! and are paired with schools to educate kids about food and cooking techniques) or teach a few people per week in their restaurants how to cook, a lot could improve.”

But at the end of the day, Kass summarized, “if [the food] doesn’t taste good, it’s not going to work.”

3. Environmental and Social Responsibility Take Starring Roles

Betty Izumi, PHD, MPH, RD, assistant professor in the School of Community Health at Portland State University, said the Menus of Change Annual Report highlights the need for collaboration among environmental experts, chefs, farmers and consumers. “Consumers are changing. I don’t think they necessarily want to know all the details of how or where a food was grown or raised, but they are expecting environmentally and socially responsible practices,” she said. “That will take collaboration.”

Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, did not mince words on this double-bladed health and environmental issue, which clearly stirs him: “Greenhouse gas production is directly related to the types of foods you choose to put on your plate,” he said. “Basic choice of foods has a huge impact on the environment. Replacing red meat with almost anything will have a favorable impact. This is a clear message to those who are designing menus: Replace red meat with other choices.”

What We Serve Determines What We Grow

What we choose to serve is a decision not only of health but of sustainability. Which ingredients, and how much of each, should we use? Consumers need to join chefs and foodservice professionals in giving food this kind of scrutiny.

“What we put on the menu drives what we grow,” says Wasserman, who gave this example: A chef needs to decide whether to serve customers a pound of steak or a pound of corn. It will require 6–7 pounds of corn to feed that 1 pound of meat on the plate, compared with the resources needed to grow a pound of corn or perhaps another vegetable. A better compromise for the chef could be to create a steak and corn salad as the main entrée, perhaps using only 3–4 ounces of meat, Wasserman said. It’s a healthier plate overall with a more reasonable portion of animal protein, and it significantly cuts back on the resources needed to bring the food to the plate.

Jeremy Bearman, executive chef at New York City Michelin-star restaurant Rouge Tomate, and Kristy Lambrou, MS, RD, CDN, the restaurant’s culinary nutritionist, did a cooking demo for a dish called Mushroom Farrotto, their healthy, responsible spin on risotto. With a few simple techniques and smart substitutions for the cheese, butter and cream that give risotto its creamy mouthfeel and flavor, they were able to cut out most of the saturated fat and slash calories while infusing the dish with a clean richness of its own. Using the ancient grain farro piccolo in lieu of risotto, a short-grain processed white rice, they also packed in a lot of fiber and introduced a complex nutty, earthy flavor risotto doesn’t offer.

The main lesson in this example comes from selecting farro as the base grain. A supersmart choice on the sustainability index, farro takes 80% less water to grow than white rice, Bearman said.

In the future, simple, obvious choices like this—in tandem with the creativity of chefs and nutrition pros—will make a substantive difference by

  • providing top-notch nutrition that tastes good,
  • preserving dwindling resources,
  • protecting the livelihoods of farmers and
  • feeding an ever-growing population.

4. We Must Reclaim Our Cooking “Survival” Skills

As Kass already pointed out, Americans are lost in the kitchen. Floundering at the stove means we are likely struggling on the front end (sourcing and shopping for good ingredients) as well. “We are all eaters in this food culture, but cooking has been delinked from the process,” said Lee.

Rick Bayless, James Beard Award–winning chef-owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOCO in Chicago, spoke wistfully about this abandoned connection to our food as he prepared two dishes during his cooking demo on the event’s opening day. Culturally, he said, we have really confused ourselves by redefining words in the cooking lexicon.

For example, he added, we call the ubiquitous green-bean casserole we make for Thanksgiving “old-fashioned,” when such a recipe ironically marks the beginning of the end of scratch cooking. In fact, most ingredients in the dish are highly processed, and it is prepared with simple dump-and-stir directives. We define “easy-to-prepare” foods as those we can open and microwave, Bayless continued. Anything beyond that, we consider hard to make. We’ve lost track of what celebratory foods are—because they are now available all the time.

“If we could turn away from processed foodstuffs, it would force us to deal with live ingredients and learn to develop flavor,” he said. “I remember my grade school kitchen was one of my favorite places because of the good aromas. I was in a school kitchen recently, and it smelled terrible. They were lacking the equipment necessary to develop flavor.

“We’ve lost the ‘story’ that goes with the food,” he lamented. “It doesn’t have a story anymore.”

5. We Should Retrain Kids’ Approach to Food

William Rosenzweig, cofounder and partner at Physic Ventures, a venture capital firm dedicated to investing in keeping people healthy, encouraged a kernel of a good idea from one of his University of California, Berkeley, business school students when she presented her concept for giving schoolchildren healthier food choices.

The student, Kirsten Saenz Tobey, now chief innovation officer for Revolution® Foods, a foodservice company that serves delicious, healthful school meals to students across the country, was sparked to action when she read an article suggesting that, for the first time, American kids would not outlive their parents. After researching the market thoroughly and being appalled by the state of school food, she rolled up her sleeves.

She and business partner Kristin Groos Richmond, a former classmate at Berkeley, founded Revolution Foods in 2006; the company is now serving 1 million meals a week to schools nationwide. A unique aspect of the business is that they incorporate kids into the menu design process through proprietary kid-designed recipes. “Lack of respect for the kids was a problem before,” Saenz Tobey said. “We regularly bring kids into the kitchen and let them chop, taste and season. The earlier we do this, the earlier we can tune their palates away from artificial flavors, colors, etc.”

Revolution Foods works with kids in K–12 and matriculates the 17- and 18-year-olds by showing them how to use their cooking survival skills to prepare healthy, economical food when they get to college. “This has a transformative effect on kids,” said Saenz Tobey. “They take their new knowledge home and ask for good and different foods. They show what they’ve learned to mom and dad.”

Izumi, who works with children up to age 5, says we often underestimate the palates of children. We dumb down their tasting capabilities by serving them what we’ve come to accept as “kid food.” “I would love to see us do away with kids’ menus of chicken fingers, fries and grilled cheese,” she said. “What if we just made the kids’ menu smaller portions of what adults are getting? We need to socialize [kids] differently or we will never be able to address the childhood obesity issue.”

Rick Wolff, director of culinary innovation at HMS Host, a $2.8 billion restaurant company, is similarly dismayed at Americans’ botched food-introduction practices for children. “The main thing I’ve seen from traveling is that, culturally, we are very different about how we get kids to eat things. We use bribery. By doing this, we have trained generations of people to be obese.”

Recreating the American Food Story

So to paraphrase Bayless, how do we recapture our story? We are perhaps moving through the third generation of Americans who have never learned to cook and who are pretty clueless about food and nutrition. Do these factors link directly to the obesity issue? What must change to get us back on track?

In her presentation, Lee asked the audience where it thought most of the public was getting information about food and nutrition. People called out responses such as, “Dr. Oz!” and “The Internet?” After acknowledging that these replies were valid, she revealed the answer that her research has confirmed as the top source: “fitness trainers.”

As an industry, we have much to explore in this realm and there are 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 and those formulating our food, and by being aware of the social and environmental responsibility we all have as world citizens, together we may find a way to rewrite these dark decades spent away from our kitchens, our family tables and our stories.

Momentum for change and Menus of Change are building.

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