06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conversations around Food

Eating and cooking - we all know the joy and benefits of these activities. They are not only productive in that a goal is achieved (a meal is prepared, hunger is sated), but they are also fun, interactive and rich with multiple layers of sensory and social experiences.

What about great conversation about food - whoever would have envisioned how satisfying talking about food, would be. Two experiences this week - where the topic was food - left me filled with ideas, thoughts, and hope.

It was Sugar Week at the High School for Public Service in Brooklyn, where the principal, Ben Shuldiner, has been working to convert an acre of the school grounds into farmland, as part of a community action project aimed at improving the eating habits of the students. In creating support for the farm project, several CORO Leadership Program students are working to raise awareness of the impact of food choices on the bodies and health of their fellow students who identified healthy nutrition as a major issue in their community. Specifically they found that students didn't even realize that they weren't making healthy choices. They planned the three day awareness raising event called Sugar Week where they decided just to focus on uncovering how much sugar they were eating and what the "sugar cost" actually is to their health.

On Monday they held a sugar demo in the lunchroom where they had a visual display of the amount of sugar in popular lunch items. Students filled out baseline surveys and did personal lunch sugar inventories. On Tuesday, they advertised and screened the documentary Killer AT Large. They served fresh fruit and held a discussion following the movie after school. On Wednesday they held the panel discussion: 'Sugar! So what!?' to hear voices from the community.

A three-day program on nutrition awareness ended on Wednesday with a panel on Sugar (with Christine Yu of Food and Fitness Partnership; Poulette Olmos of the NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene and me) where the following questions were prepared and posed by the 9th grade students:

Guiding Question: Sugar! So What?
Question 1: Why does it matter (to you and your interests) what we put in our bodies?
Questions 2: What is the effect of a high -sugar diet?
Question 3: What is behind all the media attention for the anti-sugar movement?
Question 4: What are some examples of successful nutritional programs that you've seen in different schools? What makes them successful?
Question 5: What are food deserts?
Question 6: If you could get students to do ONE thing differently to improve overall wellness, what would it be?

The students were genuinely curious about the connection between what they eat and drink and how they feel. They asked about the difference between soda and juice and sports drinks; were lighter sodas less bad than darker sodas (no - the difference is the caffeine.) It was thought provoking to stimulate their thinking about the connection between consumer choices and influencing food manufacturers - yes, you can vote at 15! It was interesting for me to learn how many students in the group are from families that cook nightly dinners (20%).

CORO's Kate Bredrup, (Director, Exploring Leadership) shared: "One of the youth ambassadors, Nadia, (who wasn't actually present at the panel discussion) was texting me all afternoon with conversations that she was overhearing in the hallway. At 3:15 I got: "We need to google Gatorade. Maybe we shouldn't be drinking it all day." So many thanks to you all for stimulating that kind of energy and interest."

As a follow up they are analyzing the feedback from the baseline surveys and then conducting a final evaluation, which will include assessing interest on continuing wellness programs for the school. They will deliver their findings and recommendations for successful policy in their final presentations on May 21.

Before heading back to the city, we were given a tour of the school and the site of the future farm. It is so exciting to envision rows of vegetables that the students will plant, harvest and utilize. A conversation will become an activity that will influence their lives as they begin to connect to food in an entirely new manner.



Up to Millerton, NY and a Sunday screening of the new film Fresh, by Ana Sofia Joane, at the FilmWorks Forum at the Moviehouse. A post-movie panel presented by American Farmland Trust and Edible Hudson Valley, focused on new approaches and models in farming, changes in consumer demand and new production outlets by farmers and processors as well as the challenges we face as consumers and growers. Whereas Food, Inc made you feel like never eating again, Fresh documents a movement that makes it feel safer to go back into the supermarket.

Jim Hyland, of Winter Sun Farms and Farm to Table Co-Packers shared his business model of freezing produce in peak season and distributing it in a winter CSA program. Consumers get to enjoy local produce year round while farmers benefit from increased demand for their crops. Winter Sun Farms had over 1,000 winter share members this year. Jim and Luc Roels (Pika's Farm Table) are converting 20,000 sq ft of former kitchen space in Kingston into a processing plant where they will operate as co-packers, creating value-added products for farmers and food entrepreneurs in our region. Incubator kitchen space will allow small-scale production by farmers and individuals themselves.

David Hambleton, Head Farmer at Sisters Hill Farm, shared his commitment to an apprentice program that mentors beginning farmers and landowners who dream of starting their own farms. His 3 key pieces of advice: 1. Have a comprehensive business plan; 2. Be creative in thinking about capital and property; and 3. Establish relationships with advisors and mentors. His commitment to working with emerging farmers is symbolic of the mutual support within the farm community. David, with a degree in Environmental Studies, views sustainability in farming with hope, in spite of the daily loss of farmland to development and the obstacles in the way of new farmers. (Sisters Hill Farm is a CSA model that provides weekly shares for its members, some who pay a premium for their vegetables and others who pay what they can afford. It is the farms mission to share their bounty with those in need in the local community.)

David Haight, NYS Director for American Farmland Trust, shared his mission, combining political activism and legislative goals with promoting healthy farming practices. Blending conservation goals with supporting the needs of farmers serves the needs of multiple communities. Frightening statistics: one million acres of farmland is lost a year; in 5 years, an area the size of the state of Vermont is lost. Contemplating the demand for increasing food production by 70% to feed a population that will grow by 50%, in a world where 90% of arable land is already cultivated, is an equation the Trust grapples with as they set their agenda.

My focus on the panel was on the shifting consumer habits as seen through the catering we do at Great Performances, a barometer for what demand looks like in NYC. In our cafes, catering menus, and in conversations with our clients, the demand for local products is a higher than ever. As the time of year approaches for our 100 Mile-Menu, customers are asking for more guidance so they can make informed choices.

Conversations about food that activate, galvanize and inspire individuals, businesses and communities to eat well, preserve farmland, grow crops, challenge the status quo of industrial farming of agriculture and animals, while supporting local economies and planting the seeds of a more healthful tomorrow (a long menu of topics) - feed our spirit and nurture the hope of salvation for our food system. It is at this table that our best meals are being planned. My appetite is whetted, freshly plowed fields lined the Route 22 as I drove back to the city, and our first crop of Katchkie Farm baby radishes is ready for harvest!