Menus of Change: a summit aimed at making a healthier world through the food industry

You’ve probably seen reports in the media about obesity and overweight statistics, and it’s true – the numbers and prevalence of these conditions are definitely increasing. And, we can see the effects in real life… Have you noticed, for instance, when walking down the street, taking the subway/bus, shopping in a store, working at the office, attending public events, or eating at a restaurant, that more and more people seem to be larger and larger and taking up more and more space? I know I definitely have.

The numbers are startling. According to the CDC, about 70% of adults 20 or older are considered overweight or obese… that’s more than 2 out of every 3 people who are facing a higher risk for a variety of diseases and early death. And, even worse, about 1 in 5 teens, about 1 in 6 kids aged 6-11, and about 1 in ten toddlers and kids up to 5 years old are considered obese. What was that old adage how about how our kids are our future? If that’s true, what do these statistics tell us about our future?

Here’s the thing, there are a lot of people that say that it’s totally fine to be overweight. That it’s “normal” and to quit the “fat shaming”… but… to deny that this is a problem is to not live in reality.

This issue of obesity and overweight is certainly complex, and not attributable to one simple cause, and, yes, I agree, people still deserve dignity, but this issue definitively has a huge impact on us, both on an individual level and society at large.

Again, to deny the health impacts on individuals who are overweight is to deny reality. For instance, overweight and obese people pay, on average, $1,429 more per year in health care costs, according to a 2009 study by Finkelstein, Trogdon, Cohen and Dietz published on Health Affairs. And this is not institutional/systemic bias against “people with larger bodies,” it is a sign that there is a clear correlation between weight and impacts on health, regardless of whether you believe any data from the CDC or scientific studies on the correlations of overweight/obesity on the risk for diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, for instance.

“But, I’m healthy, why should I care,” you might think? Well, because, as I mentioned above, it’s not just about the individual, his/her costs and his/her increased risks of pre-mature death. There is a cost to society as a whole, both financially and progress-wise.

The Finkelstein study above estimated that total annual costs of health care related to obesity came in at about $147 billion dollars for 2008. (Yes, I realize this is 10 years ago… so imagine what that number is now.) If you divvied that up among our current population, to reduce the impact, that works out to be about $451 per person per year.

Don’t think that you foot the bill for any of this? Do you pay taxes?

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2016, health programs including Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program and Affordable Care Act made up about 26% of the annual budget. And, according to an article on financial expert Dave Ramsey’s website, a “sample 2011 tax receipt provided by whitehouse.gov shows the total tax bill for a married couple with two kids making $80,000 was just over $9,000″ total, and of that, about 21% was designated to health care related programs. And, in that Finkelstein study, they determined that 8.5% and 11.5% of Medicare and Medicaid spending, respectively, are directly related to obesity/overweight. That means, about $1,800 (or more) of this sample family’s income taxes are going to medical programs in general, and about $360 obesity related care directly. How much of your money do you want to spend on obesity care for society, or on yourself, for that matter?

And, to top it off, this isn’t even taking into account the cost of lost productivity… based on time out of work due to health issues connected to obesity, obesity-related disabilities, and so on, which I don’t have numbers for at the moment.

So, why am I so passionate about this? It’s not really about the money, for me. I personally grew up over weight and out of shape, and not for a lack of exercise, as I was pretty active doing soccer and dance throughout my childhood. I later realized that the food I was eating, and I don’t blame my parents, but the food I was eating was not properly fueling my body. In addition to eating too much processed food and sugary foods, I also ate a lot of refined carbs and not a lot of nutritious veggies/etc. I am partially to blame/responsible for this, having been a picky eater for most of my youth, and busy/on the go a lot… And it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I decided I would do something about it. So, I set about to learning about food, nutrition and going down the rabbit hole of attempting to figure out “the truth” about healthy eating.

I got so passionate about this area that I decided to devote some of my professional work in photography to this area – particularly through food photography – but also started a podcast exploring topics around food, health, food systems, food entrepreneurship, nutrition and more with entrepreneurs, game changers and experts.

This all, ultimately, led to my attending the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference, this past February, where I met a woman named Sophie who works in the Culinary Institute of America’s strategic department. When I mentioned my podcast, Put a Fork In It, and how I’m on a mission to create a healthier, wealthier and happier world, she told me about a conference she was working on through the CIA – the Menus of Change.

I didn’t know what it was at that time, but she mentioned to follow up and she could connect me with the right people to get a press pass, on behalf of the podcast and my blogging.

Being the diligent person I am, I did just that, and with that deal of networking, a few weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to attend this 2.5 day leadership summit at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY (not too far from where I live).

This conference was founded several years back as a way to include the food service and food consumer packaged goods industries in the good fight: helping to shape these industries to influence healthier options/choices for consumers and adapting our current food system to a healthier and more sustainable version that prioritizes personal and environmental health and, ultimately, delicious food.

It was truly a great opportunity to be among the CEOs of large food companies, chefs and culinary/nutrition directors, scientists, and more who are all on the cutting edge of this work.

My eyes were opened to the fact that the food industry and agriculture are one of the leadings contributors of climate change. Something I realized while at the conference, since I really try to be apolitical and not polarizing, and try to find the middle ground on these types of things, is that whether you believe in human caused climate change or not, there are definitely measurable and important impacts on the environment from our current behaviors in the food/ag industries, and we can always improve. In retrospect, that should of been pretty obvious, considering that we use land to grow our food, both plants and animals, which certainly has impacts on the soil, and, how about erosion of soil from replanting crops annually, or methane coming from livestock, or waste and pollutants of all sorts from shipping materials, or pollutants from herbicides, or decreasing bee populations, or getting rid of “sub par” produce, or packaging from processed goods (or otherwise), and so on.

If you want more specific information, here are a few resources to get you started:

So, similar to above, regarding denial of health impacts of obesity, to deny that our actions in the food/ag industry has an environmental impact, is to deny reality. So, again, whether we believe in climate change or if we do believe it exists, but aren’t sure that we could really do anything about it, the fact is that we are currently doing things that impact the environment and, again, if we believe in our kids being our future, it’s really in our best interests to take care of the environment, to do a better job, and create a sustainable world where our kids can grow up and raise kids of their own.

This event, the Menus of Change, really opened my eyes to this. And while, at first, I did have some resistance and skepticism to what was being said, since environmental issues are often a politicized and therefore polarizing and propagandized issues with a lot of buzz words designed to make us feel guilty and shameful (from both sides of the spectrum), I’ve opened my mind back up to this topic and it’s true importance, because it’s critical to recognize that our actions, individually, as as people and businesses, as well as in the collective industry and society at large do really matter for the long term success of our species and life on earth. And, if we don’t take care of our environment and resources, we all lose out in the end regardless of whether you’re on the left, on the right, believe that humans have caused climate change, or that we can’t do anything to prevent or reverse climate change.

So, as you might expect, the conference included presentations from industry leaders in various sectors of the culinary and food system, entrepreneurs, scientists, chefs and so on, as well as networking opportunities. But, what was unique was really how deeply the concepts and values were actually applied. What I mean is… they actually practiced what they were preaching about plant-forward menus, the “protein flip” and the “Mediterranean diet”/using unique ingredients and local sourcing. It wasn’t just a load of preaching or trying to “inspire” or “educate” or propagandize to make change, there was actually a full-reaching application of the principles during their own meal times. They sampled some of the dishes that were discussed or shown during cooking demos, and even provided the recipes for the foods that were served, through the conference app. It was certainly a refreshing change to be at an event that actually served delicious AND nutritious foods – a pet-peeve and big weakness for me.

This really is exciting and makes me grateful to have been a part of it and to meet so many people that also want to improve the food system and public health. It’s very encouraging and, even if there are certain things that may be polarizing or pique my skepticism or critical side, it really comes back to one of my favorite guiding principles, from Ghandi himself, to the CIA: “Be the change you wish to see in the world” and, therefore, lead by example.

It was really wonderful to be a part of that experience and be able to be a part of something that embodies this philosophy – it’s one of the reasons that I do what I do and pursue the goals that I pursue, in spite of challenges and naysayers. I really believe that if you want to change the world, you have to start with your self and act in accordance with your values, first, and if you do that in your own life, the more people around you will see that it’s possible and be inspired to try it too. And to me, this is the greatest approach we can take to create the positive changes we wish to see. One small act and one person or organization at a time.

 

Here are some of my photos:

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