To Change the Food System, Talk to Chefs

The FAO just endorsed Chefs as agents of Change. Why?

A recent USDA report shows that 33% of calories eaten by Americans come from Food Away From Home (FAFH), and the authors to conclude: “Because FAFH is associated with overall poor diet quality, policymakers, health practitioners, and researchers have suggested several policies to curb the purchase and consumption of prepared foods”. Nothing new under the sun: limitation of advertising, portion size control, labeling. Ideas we have implemented all over the world for 30 years, with the results we know (and if you don’t, well, it’s because there is none).

Eat 5 or more fruits and vegetables a day. It is good for your health. And on the USDA website, vegetables are featured in a big, colorful banner, in all their rawness. Same on the French National Nutrition Plan (PNNS) website. THAT is supposed to make us crave for veggies. And also a focus on nutrient that is SO complex that even after a master degree in nutrition and more than 10 years working in the field, I am still not sure if I eat enough or too much protein a day – but I know that I should eat less sugar and less salt, more fibers, omega 3, folic acid, and vitamin D. Where do you find them again? (in the drugstore).

 

A chef told me once: everybody can cook a great steak, but it takes a great chef to cook great vegetables. Veggies are delicate, subtle, and require experience and focus. Unfortunately, in America, we are currently giving birth of the third generation that will grow without a cook at home. Millennials don’t know how to cook, in part because nobody was home to teach them. It is true for their parents as well… And will be true for their children.

Hence the solution: let’s urge people to learn how to cook. It works for the wealthiest: they can afford Blue Apron, Plated and other meal kits that make it so easy to cook. Unfortunately, Safeway, Target, and even the farmers market’s produces are not easy to transform into delicious plant-based dishes, and for a lot of people, pasta, pizza and burgers are a safe way to satisfy hunger and bring comfort after a hard day of work. No fight over the dinner table. And in addition to that, they can be made by others and still be cheap.

After almost two years working with chefs, I can’t understand why they are not more involved, even central, in public health policies to change people’s diet. Chefs are trained to develop delicious recipes, and love nothing more than culinary challenges. They know dishes that put stars in the eyes and water in the mouth of their customers, and still, we see raw vegetables on the USDA and the PNNS website.

But things are changing. The Menus of Change initiative proposes 24 principles for healthier, more sustainable menus. I work on implementing them and measuring the impact every day, loving the food centric logic (no mention of calories or nutrients here), the importance given to flavors, pleasure, discovery, simplicity.

For almost two years now, I have discovered the genius of chefs. A more ambitious public health policy could use culinary schools and restaurants to implement behavioral change strategy. To translate science into change, we need to change the words we use. The language of Chefs is worth a try.MOC principles

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