Cover image: Nancy Easton, Susan Edgerley, David Bouley and Pamela Koch © Consulat de France à New York
“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” Chef David Bouley said referring to complacency many in America have when confronted with an impending food crisis. “(Like fixing a car),”You need to open the hood and see what’s going on!”
Sustainability may be a buzz word in the food industry; however, is really that important? Food can be grown in abundance, according to former NY Times Dining editor and moderator Susan Edgerley. A native of Kansas, the breadbasket of America, Ms. Edgerley said the state produces nearly 328 million bushels a year, about 20% of the country’s wheat production. Statistically, an annual yield could feed the world’s population for two weeks, but she countered that quality, distribution and access are problematic, often resulting in food waste. “We need to feed the world,” she said, “And we can do it in different ways.”
The discussion focused on two areas: education and nutrition, and the combination of both can lead to sustainable menu choices. Seemingly simple, the save our-food-campaign, however, is an uphill battle. As per Ms. Edgerley and fellow panelist Professor Pamela Koch at Columbia University, over a third of the U.S. adult population is obese, adding to the already astronomic cost in healthcare. In the recent presidential campaign, The New York Times questioned why so many candidates talked very little about nutrition. Likewise Mr. Bouley said the government needs support to local farmers with better subsidies. Meanwhile Americans continue to buy cheap and plentiful while throwing away tons. The level of food waste “is shocking.” he added, “We have become conditioned on a weak source of food.”
Although daunting, the panel agreed that turning things around requires the right investment in education for the young. Mr. Bouley described his own education with food stemming from his French background and upbringing in Connecticut, where his family grew peaches and made their own honey. “You become aware of the food you eat and how it’s produced.” Even as chef patron of one of his first restaurants, he opted for healthier choices and favored local produce on his menus despite the kitchen brigade’s initial skepticism.
“If you educate children, it makes all the difference,” said Nancy Easton, Executive Director of Wellness in the Schools, an organization committed to teaching youngsters about healthy living. It comes down to great education, nutritious school meals and school gardens. In New York, Ms. Easton said there are roughly 1800 public schools and 500 registered gardens, but how to get students interested in food? And could they distinguish between right and wrong choices?
As Dr. Koch said, “Kids must be excited and part of the process if they are to make healthy choices.” Wellness in the Schools‘ interactive workshops allow students to meet farmers and prepare local produce and recruit culinary school graduates to design healthy and sustainable menus for schools. Mr.Bouley remarked that while school meals in countries like Brazil and Japan required 30% of local ingredients, no such standard exists here.
Local produce, however does not come cheap as many discover in the farmer’s markets. Consumers may hesitate to buy plump local garlic from Orange County and opt for smaller, cheaper cloves from China sold in supermarkets at a third of the cost. For many families, locavorism may be an expensive novelty of high end kitchens.
While Mr. Bouley admits that local produce has a higher cost and lower yield, the quality is better than that of imported food. Although many local producers lack organic certification, they often adhere to similar guidelines. Labor, personal transport and standing in the freezing cold at an outdoor market are factored in the prices. The cost may be higher, but “cheap is expensive” when we think about how much families and school cafeterias waste when throwing away large quantities of uneaten food.
“Kids don’t want to eat that stuff anyway,” Mr. Bouley said about some of the dishes served for school lunches, made with lower quality ingredients. There is not much of a standard to say what school menus must have. Wellness in the Schools, however, has made menus that have both fresh fruit and veg in order to promote balanced diets. The government still lags behind still classing fruit and veg as “luxury items” in the Farm Bill.
Bouley’s advocation of nutritious food borders on gastronomic zealotry. By making the right choices including locally sourced produce, balanced diets are both accessible and sustainable. In comparison to other parts of the world that use little synthetics, the populations are generally healthier. Countries like Japan, according to Mr. Bouley, use fermentation and other techniques that contain live bacteria, which increase the nutritional value in addition to flavor. Finally in a nod to the Japanese philosophy of hara hachi bu, limit portions at mealtimes and finish before you’re full. When people enjoy food that is both delicious and healthy, they waste less.
The talk was inspirational and informative but could have focused more on helping working families get access to fresh, local ingredients. The cocktail reception with sparkling champagne, vol-au-vents, smoked salmon tarts, pumpkin soup and canapés, however, tested my self-discipline, quickly chucking hara hachi bu out the window in favor of another glass of bubbly and salmon caviar on a buttery mini tartelette.