As a working New Yorker and a chef, I have the means and ability to find and prepare unprocessed, locally grown vegetables and meat. As a food lover and as a parent I am grateful.
Many people in our country do not have the access, money, or time to prepare natural foods from sources they know. And when you think about how easy it is to prepare processed foods, it is no surprise that many Americans are using them. It's also no surprise that obesity rates are growing.
Most of you know by now that obesity is a serious issue in America. For children, the trends are even more disturbing. The national childhood obesity rate has tripled since 1980. If the current trend continues, experts estimate that the obesity rate in children and adolescents will rise to 25 percent by 2015.
While the obesity rate has recently decreased in NYC, it is still growing across the country, particularly in rural areas. Kentucky, one of the states struggling most with obesity, provides a stark example: obesity rates have increased 90 percent there in the last 15 years and 21 percent of their children are considered obese.
But Kentucky has decided to do something about it. They've decided to take legislative and community action to get their kids healthier and more active. Kentucky's school meal requirements are now even stricter than the health standards imposed by the USDA, and they have limited when and where "competitive foods" can be sold in schools -- those are the foods that come out of the vending machines. They are also reaching out to experts in childhood nutrition and fitness to help them turn the tide against obesity.
Since 2008, I've been the executive chef of Wellness in the Schools (WITS), a non-profit organization which inspires healthy eating, environmental awareness and fitness as a way of life for kids in New York City's public schools. As part of a new partnership between WITS and Save the Children, next week I will be traveling to Letcher County, Kentucky. I will meet with culinary school directors, school food managers and school officials to introduce them to the WITS Labs, which are interactive cooking classes at schools, like those we conduct with students in the 25 NYC public schools WITS works with right now. We teach the kids basic cutting and cooking skills that will always be with them, and after the classes they go home with a colorful brochure of recipes that they can show their parents and cook together. After the schools and support staff are trained on the WITS curricula and recipes, the programming will be worked into 12 rural schools where Save the Children is already working through their CHANGE (Creating Healthy Active and Nurturing Growing Up Environments) program.
Although reversing the obesity trend in Kentucky is a tall task, I have been heartened by the grass-roots initiatives that are springing up across the state. In Louisville, advocates are working to engage public officials in the creation of a local Food Policy Council -- something that NYC advocates have been working toward for several years. In April, Louisville will host the Bluegrass Local Food Summit, a community forum to engage public officials, learn about farm to school initiatives, and introducing the community to sustainable lifestyles. In Berea County, they will have a similar event in March to teach about CSAs, farmers' markets and healthy cooking. These kinds of community initiatives are the key to getting people talking and thinking more about the food they are eating.
I believe educating people about food and cooking is the most direct way to get people to develop healthier habits. It's incredible to watch children holding their salad knives to cut lettuce and other vegetables or stirring a pot of vegetarian chili, and it's great when a parent pulls me aside to tell me how excited their child was to share their new cooking skills with them -- and how they now want to be involved with cooking family meals at home. If families are empowered with education and cooking skills they can benefit not only nutritionally, but also emotionally and socially as developing and cooking these healthy meals at home brings the entire family closer together.
I return from Kentucky late next week and I look forward to sharing my experience there with you.