the business of healthy, sustainable delicious food choices

POSTED 08 October 2013 IN Wellbeing

By David Wright

The goal of Menus of Change is to envision the convergence of nutrition and public health, environmental and social imperatives, the culinary arts, and innovation within the business of American foodservice.

I would firstly like to thank Feng Sushi the opportunity to attend such an enlightening conference. I must admit I did enter the conference with a certain amount of trepidation. Not only was I entering the great centre of academia that is Harvard, but after reading the list of attendees I soon realised I was in the esteemed company of those from the medical, industrial, institutional, and culinary communities. It was wonderful to see people coming together to solve a problem of great human and economic proportions. Moreover, as the United States is one of the most innovative global societies in the world, resolving this issue is of great importance to them.

Menus of Change is a ground-breaking new leadership initiative launched in 2012 by the Culinary Institute of America in collaboration with partners. The initiative works to create a long-term practical vision for the integration of optimal nutrition and public health, environmental stewardship and restoration, and social responsibility within the foodservice sector.

Menus of Change is a dramatic change towards the positive in the new era we are entering. This summit has shown how obesity and its consequences are issues to be taken very seriously. The US exports its solutions for feeding humanity both socially, as aid, and emotionally, as ‘The American Dream.’ At its best, this helps third-world countries abolish famine and disease. At its worst, citizens from other countries follow the bad habits that come from learning to produce and consume food and others products (e.g. serving and shipping containers, plastic bags, soda cans, etc.) in excess. Unhealthy restaurant chains use methods to produce, pack and store foods for longer shelf life and more intense flavour, with the use of artificial colours, chemicals, pesticides and GMOs.

I feel that the American sustainable movement is behind the European movement. This could be because of our eating habits and also because the sheer size of the country makes sustainability less manageable. The food and agricultural sectors have a social duty and responsibility to put sustainable practices into affect. For the first time ever, American children born now will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. As countries grow, so do their obesity rates, like China. As immigrants arrive in the US, their weight increases; second generation Americans are just as obese or heavier than the average American.

The main emphasis to come out of our discussion regarding the health of the nation is that chefs need to keep food healthy, fresh, real and local.

We need to get children more involved in their food choices. It is up to us as professional food providers to tune the palate of children. This means getting rid of separate kids’ menus that have unhealthy choices on them in order to appease children.

We are not just preaching ‘Jamie Oliver-style’ about nutrition and unhealthy food. We realise there are steps that have to be taken to insure the massive food conglomerates do their part, too. We discussed the environmental impact of growing corn. Four times more corn is used to feed animals (mostly cows) than is produced as food for humans. Over 90% of American farmland is used for commodity crops rather than for growing fruit and vegetables.

The local food movement shows the power that chefs have to transform our approach to food in a small amount of time. Like others, I have changed my general attitude towards food as a result of being educated about sustainable and locally produced food. In the US, they are trying to preserve smaller farms with the ‘Farm to Table’ movement. People in the larger metropolises of New York, San Francisco and Portland want to know where their food is from (watch the TV show Portlandia for funny proof). The millennial generation is the most demanding, questioning and entrepreneurial, and as such, we must use them as an outlet to get our message out there.

The choices people make about food are influenced by their environments and what type of food they have access to. There is a great inequality in wealth and what people can afford, but as food providers, we cannot continue to perpetuate that gap. Of course, proper economic conditions are needed, but it is felt that chefs can become the agents of change. If the consumer does not have access to certain foods, it is our responsibility to provide them with the best alternatives possible.

The highlight of the three-day conference was the much-anticipated release of the Menus of Change Annual Report. This included an analysis of 13 issues at the convergence of public health, the environment and the business of food. Developed in collaboration with leading scientists and business experts on our Scientific and Technical Advisory Council (chaired by Walter Willett, MD, PhD of the HSPH Department of Nutrition) and Sustainable Business Leadership Council, the report provides groundbreaking, evidence-based strategies for foodservice executives. Its section entitled “Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus” gives business leaders unprecedented guidance to navigate game-changing food-related issues. Here is a quote from Dr. Willett:

“This first report presents the base and structure for the viable tracking of dietary quality in America. 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.”

I attended a separate seminar, linked to the work we do with Feng Sushi, called ‘Putting More Fish on the Plate Whilst Keeping More Fish in the Sea.’ Fish are an important source of protein, especially in the developing world. Fish account for 20% of animal-derived protein in low-income countries, compared to 13% in industrialised countries. It was decided that the present system relies solely on demand. In the US, there is an irrational demand for just 3 types of fish: salmon, cod and prawns. There are obviously far more fish out there, and also more sustainable species to be had. The hope would be to rely on responsible fisheries, single fishery management, eco-farming and a push towards diversity of species fished. This would give power back to the fisherman. The product should be fished and purchased seasonally. If the consumers are educated about seasonality, they could then shift and drive the demand. There also seems to be consumer fears about the purchasing of fish, with many horror stories surrounding mercury and other contaminants in fish. There is also the notion that sustainable fish costs more; however, with full traceability these hesitations should be calmed.

It was agreed that the market will eventually decide the future of these food choices. There is a growing demand for sustainability in the American foodservice industry. However, it must to be accessible to everybody and consumers have to be involved in the process. Chefs and restaurateurs have to be authentic and transparent; we have the purchasing power to do so. We need to engage the consumer, especially those of the millennial generation. We need their social media savvy in order to help share this story and our crucial message: food is important to all people.