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Yuppies Watching Documentaries

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My wife and I were on the couch watching Forks Over Knives when she suddenly burst into tears. I was a little surprised. Forks Over Knives is a documentary. About plant-based eating. Hardly a tearjerker. In the few months since Kirsten and I had been married, watching documentaries had become our habit. We liked them in the same way we liked yoga--a relatively fun way to self-improve. Not usually something to cry over.

What got to Kirsten was a segment on cholesterol. The director, who was also the onscreen lead, visited a doctor who told him that his blood pressure, cholesterol and weight were all too high. To the director this was old news--he was already on six or seven medications. What was news was the doctor's promise that if he adopted a plant-based diet, all of it--the weight, the cholesterol, the medications--would disappear. We watched as the director followed that diet for several months. When he returned to the doctor's office he was twenty pounds lighter, free of medications, and his cholesterol had been cut in half. That's when Kirsten became emotional.

Kirsten is a doctor, a surgeon-turned-psychiatrist. Forks Over Knives was calling into question her medical-trained worldview--that cures came in pill form, or by slicing open a body (she'd received a total of thirty minutes of nutrition education in medical school). But that's not what made her cry. She was crying because she'd been on Lipitor for ten years, since her early twenties, and she thought she'd be on it forever. This had become a frequent subject of discussion in our house, because we'd begun to talk about starting a family. She couldn't be on Lipitor while pregnant. Kirsten worried that, by going off the drug, her cholesterol would spike. She was also worried about whether she could even become pregnant. She was thirty-three. Her mom had struggled to get pregnant, and to carry pregnancies to term. Kirsten rarely spoke about it, but I knew her biggest fear was that we would be unable to conceive.

So there we were, watching a documentary on healthy eating while tears streamed down my wife's face. The idea that she could control her cholesterol made her feel less trapped. Suddenly, she had hope. As I sat there, I realized that I did, too. I'd struggled with weight since I was a kid, both on the high side (I'd entered high school forty pounds overweight) and the low side, when I'd been mired in some dangerous habits during my high school and college wrestling days. I'd gotten some control over my eating, but I still carried around thirty extra pounds and definitely wasn't happy about it.

With the blessing of her doctor, Kirsten went off Lipitor. At the grocery store we filled our cart with fruits, vegetables and beans. We didn't buy processed food. We didn't buy dessert. We didn't even buy meat.

The next few weeks were hard. There were those moments after dinner when we just looked at each other and were like that's it? It was harder for Kirsten, for whom dessert was a necessity, like morning coffee. After dinner she'd pace the house like a caged tiger, and I learned to be very gentle with her during those times, lest I lose a hand. Foregoing dessert was no cakewalk for me, either. I had nightmares, hyper-visual secret-agent scenes where I'd be somewhere I wasn't supposed to be, hiding from men with guns, or my dad. These nightmares would end with my falling over a cliff, or having a building crumble beneath me. My counselor, Linda, who I'd been talking to for ten years, said those were sugar-withdrawal symptoms.

Giving up meat was hard, too, but in a different way. We didn't crave it, or even miss the taste that much--we just didn't have any idea what to cook for dinner. Our standard meal had been a hunk of grilled meat, some rice, and a salad. Now dinner was a smattering of side dishes. It felt lonesome.

Finally, we adjusted. We slept better, had more energy. I lost weight. Kirsten didn't, and was pissed about that. We watched more documentaries about healthy eating--Hungry For Change, Food Inc. Three months later Kirsten got her cholesterol checked. It had been 273. Now, medication-free, it was 152. Her "bad" cholesterol had dropped from 177 to 81. She beamed.

We thought that was the end of it. It was a good story, a story about a newly married couple getting a handle on their eating, about preparing to start a family, about putting rainbow sprinkles aside to become grownups.

And then we watched another documentary, A Place At The Table, and this time it was I who cried. We sat on the same couch, but in a different house. We had moved from Hollywood to Westwood to be closer to Kirsten's new job at UCLA. Kirsten liked the shorter commute, and Westwood was nice. But the problem with Westwood is that it's the west side of Los Angeles, which feels to me like pretending, like living in a fantasy world where crime doesn't exist and everyone drives a Range Rover. So what moved me so much? A Place At The Table is about hunger in America. There are 311 million people in America, and 48 million are on food stamps. Many are children, and a good number live in L.A. I learned that only ten minutes from our manicured neighborhood, people were starving.

Thanks to effective advertising campaigns by non-profits, the dominant image of starvation has been a skeleton-thin child in Ethiopia. But starvation in America looks different. A lot of American children who are hungry are also overweight. Junk food is cheap, and in many neighborhoods it's the only food available. In the span of a day, a kid can go from being hungry, missing lunch, to eating KFC for dinner. That fact--that many kids are both starving and obese--was what got to me.

They used to call my brother and me "The Pork Brothers," riffing on our last name. It's not just the physical costs of obesity we had to pay, but the emotional ones, too: the teasing, the bullying, the shame. I'd spent years in counseling dealing with that pain.

What's more, I knew what it was like to be hungry. Not in the same way that poor kids in South LA do, but close enough. I grew up in Glendale, a middle-class suburb. There was food in the fridge, but my dad was sort of crazy when it came to money. He was always trying to save by cutting corners. He'd order pizza--just one pie for a family of six (I also have a younger brother and sister). You had to wolf down a slice in record time if you wanted another. I once took a slice into my bedroom, hid it in a drawer. Then I got another and savored it, knowing I had one waiting for me.

A Place At The Table brought all that back. I was hit with the raw emotion of what it feels like not to have enough to eat, of what it feels like to be always wanting one more slice, one more bite. I was struck with the notion that ten miles away from where we sat in our two story Westwood home, a million kids were lusting over a bit of food that not only wouldn't satisfy them, but would make them fat. I think Kirsten and I were especially sensitive to the message of the film because we were thinking about starting a family. We were worried about what kind of parents we'd become. We wanted to deal with our problems so we didn't pass them onto our kids. And we wanted to be the kind of people who would make our kids proud.

We decided we wanted to do something about hunger and obesity in America. We didn't know what, but we told each other we'd think about it. But who hasn't said that--or something like it--a million times before?

The mom in A Place At The Table had two kids. She was unemployed, poor. She tried everything to put food on the table. Many nights she failed. Do you know that feeling, where your problems just feel so big, so unsolvable, that all you can do is pray for someone or something to come and help you? She was that person.

That had been me once, too. I got into quite a bit of trouble when I was younger, got kicked out of college, built up some pretty nasty credit card debt. I remember at one point having no idea how I was going to make rent, let alone pay down my credit cards. More than anything I wanted someone to help me get out of that tough place, so I could fix the mess I had made.

During this time, I went with a girlfriend to the Santa Anita Racetrack. We put down a one-dollar bet on a superfecta, which means picking the first four horses, in order, nearly impossible. The race was crazy--the horses started in a clump, and they stayed that way the whole way round. When they crossed the finish line we didn't know if our horses had come in first or seventh. It took the judges twenty minutes to sort it out. When they announced the winners, my girlfriend and I looked at each other with wild eyes. We would have screamed, but we didn't want to draw attention.

We walked to our car that day with $10,000 in our pockets. My girlfriend wanted us to do something crazy with the money, something stupid, but I knew that this was the help I'd prayed for. I made rent, paid down my credit cards. And I never forgot what it feels like to get help when you need it.

A few days after we watched A Place At The Table, my friend Joe came by and we started tossing around ideas. There were many resources for hungry families--food stamps and food banks--but so many people still fell through the cracks. "What if we just bought groceries for one family for a couple of months?" I said. In my newly plant-based mind, I pictured bags of tomatoes and avocadoes, kale and yellow peaches. Joe liked the idea, and suddenly we weren't just talking about doing something. We were doing something.

I started calling people and felt stupid because I had no idea what to say, and zero experience in this arena. "I have this idea about individuals buying groceries for a family," I told a woman who ran a non-profit in Inglewood. I thought she was going to tell me to get a better idea, but she loved what I proposed. She said I'd "awoken to my responsibility." She suggested we incorporate nutrition education and some healthy-cooking classes. "Teach a man to fish, you know," she said. "Nobody knows what to do with a bag of kale." I kept talking to more people. Each one put me in touch with someone else, and our idea began to grow.

One day Kirsten and I wrote out our ideas on a piece of paper. We talked about how much money we'd be willing to put in and we sketched out or plan. We'd find families through an application process. They needed to be both food insecure (the new term for hungry, which allows for the coexistence of malnutrition and obesity) and struggling with health issues. We'd select a group of families and award them Groceryships--scholarships for groceries--that would include not only money to buy food, but also a comprehensive program of nutrition education, support groups, and resources. Sort of like an outpatient drug rehab, but for food.

Then I thought about what had started this whole thing--Forks Over Knives. What if we augmented our program with a series of documentaries? There were a ton out there about healthy eating--Kirsten and I had seen at least ten of them. I contacted the creator of Forks Over Knives and told him how his film had impacted me. He donated twenty copies of the film. I kept reaching out to people.

Homeboy Industries, headquartered in East LA, is the largest gang-intervention program in the world. A Jesuit priest named Greg Boyle started it twenty-five years ago, and his book about his experience, Tattoos On The Heart, is one of my all-time favorites. It's filled with stories about the generosity and kindness he saw in people on whom the world had turned its back. My favorite story was about a former gangbanger who'd come to Homeboy, left the gang life, and started a family. One day Father Greg ran into him and asked how things were going. Was it tough providing for a family?

"I'm okay," the former gangbanger said. "You know what I'm gonna do when I get home right now? I'm gonna sit down to eat with my lady and my two morritos. But, well...I don't eat. I just watch them eat. My lady she gets crazy with me, but I don't care. I just watch 'em eat. They eat and eat. And I just look at 'em and thank God they're in my life. When they're done eating and I know they're full, THEN I eat. And the truth...sometimes there's food left and sometimes there isn't."

That's the kind of dad I'd wanted, and now wanted to be. I also thought Greg Boyle might be a good guy to talk to about Groceryships, but I didn't know him, and the Homeboy website didn't list his email address. I typed up an email about Groceryships, put Father Greg's name in the header, and sent it to the general email address.

A few hours later I got an email from Father Greg. He asked me to come see him. I did, and in that meeting I told him our idea, and he loved it. He invited us to do the first pilot program at Homeboy. Hold your classes here, he said. Leverage our relationships. Father Greg had a neighbor who was the head of one of the largest foundations in Los Angeles, its main focus being the development of innovative strategies to improve the health of low-income families.

One month after I cried on that couch, Groceryships was born. In the five months since, we've raised $50,000, established a board, brought in lawyers, earned 501c3 status, created a logo, hired interns, written a curriculum, and launched a website. Kirsten and I have met with over a hundred different people who are working to create a healthier culture: world-renowned diabetes doctors, heads of major non-profits, community organizers, local celebrity-chefs. Our idea is still taking shape. In the next few months we'll launch three pilot programs, one with Homeboy Industries, one with LA's Promise, and one with St. John's Wellness.

I am scared every day. I don't know if Groceryships will work. I don't know what kind of father I'll be. I don't even know if we'll ever have kids. But I know that I love my wife. And I know that sometimes an idea comes along and, if it's the right idea, for the right people, at the right time, then it can change them, and maybe in some small way, change the world.

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