If you share my belief that everyone should have access to healthy, tasty, safe, affordable food, then every day is “food day,” but I still look forward to the national observation of Food Day on and around October 24 each year. It’s a great opportunity to learn about what other people are doing to make good food more available.
I celebrated Food Day 2014 two ways. I wrote two posts for the Massachusetts Food Day blog: one on two great Boston food festivals and one on an innovative food philanthropy program called Phfeast. And I attended two events (with more than 8,000 events nationally and hundreds in Massachusetts, there were plenty to choose from): Babson Food Day on October 23 and a “Food as Medicine” symposium on October 30. Here are a few highlights.
Babson College’s Food Sol program, which bills itself as “an action tank for food entrepreneurship of all kinds,” takes a year-round leadership role in encouraging individuals as well as businesses to help improve our food system. Babson offers day full of Food Day activities every year, including panels, discussions, and a food fair featuring a locally-sourced lunch and tabling with local food businesses and organizations.
Babson “entrepreneurs in residence,” Top Chef’s Gail Simmons and Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” lent some star power to the day. Zimmern noted that he has seen the problems with the US food system repeated in every corner of the world. He’s pragmatic: “Big food is not the enemy and it’s not going away.” He sees positive innovation coming from all corners, including the big guys.
Simmons emphasized storytelling around food. “There’s a connection between what you eat and the anthropology,” said Simmons, who went to culinary school because she wanted to become a food writer. Simmons, who is also Special Projects Director at Food & Wine, added, “If you do enough research, your story will write itself.”
Ian So, of the Chicken & Rice Guys, had a straightforward message. “Food is simple,” So said. “We make people happy.” His company started with one food truck three years ago and now has four trucks, a catering business, and a restaurant in the works. That’s a lot of happy people.
Chop Chop’s Sally Sampson was similarly blunt. “Kids aren’t interested in hearing that food is healthy or it’s good for them,” the founder of the kid’s cooking and nutrition magazine said. “They want to know that it’s fun and it tastes good. “
Babson professor of history and foodways Dr. Fred Opie provided the lone perspective from academia. “Food is the fastest growing field in the social sciences,” he said. Much of the academic work on food stays within the walls of universities, but Opie is working to bring his knowledge of African foodways and food movements into popular culture through his “Food as a Lens” blog, social media, and other channels. “The media gives us dumbed down content about food,” he stated. “You can share things that are fun, but raise consciousness, too.”
On October 30, on the other side of town, Food Day also inspired plenty of food for talk. Community Servings, which prepares and delivers thousands of medically-tailored meals to homebound people facing life-threatening illness each year, organized a panel on the topic of “Food as Medicine” with the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School.
People suffering from chronic or critical illnesses who aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from don’t have access to the nutritious foods that can help them recover or manage their disease. “Food and nutrition services can’t scale up,” said Robert Greenwald, Director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation, because money to help people suffering from illness who are “food insecure” has been limited to discretionary funds and private donations.
With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, however, “Everyone is interested in food as medicine as a potential means of lowering health care costs,” Greenwald said. There is increased awareness that helping people with chronic diseases get access to healthy food can help them achieve better health and increase patient satisfaction, while actually reducing the cost of care.
People who are experiencing food insecurity have greater health care needs than people who are well nourished, according to Community Servings CEO David Waters. “20-50 percent of people entering the hospital are malnourished. 58 percent of people who are food insecure have a family member with high blood pressure.” He added, “If we can convince health care providers of the benefits of medically-tailored meals, it will have a big impact on hunger in general.”
Lack of clinical data proving that providing nutritious food to people to people with chronic and serious health problems will improve their health and reduce cost of care has been a major obstacle for the food as medicine movement, but many such studies are now underway, including two at Community Servings.
Registered Dietitian Kim Prendergast is the Consultant for the National Diabetes Initiative at Feeding America, a national network of food banks. “Forty-six million Americans rely on Feeding America programs,” Prendergast stated. “Fifty-eight percent of the households have at least one member with high blood pressure and 33 percent have a least one member with diabetes,” she added.
Feeding America just completed a three-year research study demonstrating that nutritious food and counseling can help people improve their health. Three food banks worked with local health care providers to help people with diabetes manage their disease. Participants received food boxes with healthy fresh and packaged food, nutrition and health education, and 1-on-1 counseling. “We learned that the eating the right foods improve blood sugar control and the clients’ ability to manage their disease,” Prendergast reported.
While the two events were extremely different, I left both of them feeling fueled and inspired to do more to help everyone get access to good food. And that’s what Food Day is all about.