In Contra Costa County, Calif., a high school student juices six oranges to make eight ounces of juice, downs it in 12 seconds flat, and says, "I'm hungry, what's for breakfast?" A second student cuts up six oranges, taking 15 minutes to eat five of them, and says, "I think I'm going to be sick, I couldn't eat another bite." These students are participating in a pilot program to bring the lessons of food to an otherwise unsuspecting population, our nation's impoverished youth. A substantial percentage of these kids are obese, and some already have Type 2 diabetes. Most of these kids have never seen the inside of an orange. Previously, they had no connection between the food they were eating and what was going on in their bodies (obesity, metabolic syndrome) and their brains (sluggishness, poor academic performance). These high school students are making a complete and healthy breakfast daily, not just for themselves but for the teachers as well. In just weeks the students' palates have changed and this awareness has spread throughout the school. One student complained, "You have ruined McDonald's for me!" These kids are growing their own food on campus. Students are planting, picking, cooking, and composting. The garden is "ag-certified," meaning the extra produce can be used in the school cafeteria.
In San Francisco, Calif., Kids Cook! is an eight-week pilot program created by the Bay Area American Heart Association's 2020 Task Force. Most students had never cooked before, but they soon had their hands inside the guts of a salmon. After eight one-hour sessions they were let loose as their Iron Chef-style final yielded award-winning fish tacos. Along with a partnership from Whole Foods Market and AHA, they will compete in a Food Truck Competition at the famed Off the Grid Food Truck spot at SF's Fort Mason for Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution Day 2013.
Alice Waters pioneered the Edible Schoolyard in 1995 in a vacant Berkeley lot. Kids who had never seen a fresh vegetable, let alone watch one come out of the ground, are treated to the amazing sight and palatability of "growing your own." Waters' program has expanded via the Chez Panisse Foundation, and is being replicated in various schools throughout the country. Here's the problem: growing a vegetable is one thing, but cooking it is another. California is the artichoke capital of the world, one of the true vegetarian delicacies, yet virtually nobody knows how to cook it; certainly no one in our younger generation.
We are in the midst of the most significant public health crisis of all time -- our national epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, which threaten to bankrupt Medicare by 2024. Roughly 75 percent of health care costs are due to chronic disease, and roughly 75 percent of these costs are potentially recoupable. Although we can argue the myriad proximate causes of our health decline, the one reason we can all agree on is the plethora of processed food that started after World War II, but really ramped up starting in the 1970s. Processed food took off due to expense, time savings for two-parent working or single-parent families, and the women's rights movement. Back then, only 4 percent of all food consumed was outside the home; currently, it is 34 percent. Americans eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, usually consisting of a throw-in-the oven pizza or microwave TV dinner.
These alterations in our food supply and methods of food preparation (or lack thereof) have evinced several detrimental effects. First, Americans are getting sick. Processed food means the addition of sugar; of the 600,000 items in the food supply, 80 percent are laced with added sugar (added by the food industry for its own purposes). Sugar drives the development of all these chronic metabolic diseases. Second, processed food means fiberless food because you can't freeze fiber (try freezing an orange, see what you get). Fiber is the stealth nutrient. Lack of fiber is associated with these same diseases. Our ancestors used to consume 100 grams of fiber per day, the USDA suggests we consume 25 grams, and our median fiber consumption is 15 grams. And third, we've lost an entire generation of cooks. Many parents today don't even know how to boil water, let alone prepare a meal from scratch. And this is the "gift that keeps on giving." Kitchen-illiterate parents mean kitchen-illiterate kids, and so on. The human and economic carnage of chronic disease escalates. And so on.
Hippocrates said it first and best: "Let thy food be thy medicine." Numerous studies demonstrate when you switch to a low-sugar, high-fiber diet -- and it doesn't matter which diet you prefer (see the high-fat Atkins Diet or the low-fat Ornish Diet or the Paleolithic Diet) -- they all work to treat, and in some instances even reverse these chronic diseases. All three have been shown to reduce reliance on anti-diabetic medications. You know what you call a low-sugar, high-fiber diet? Real food. You can't buy these diets in a box. You have to prepare them.
Teaching home economics in school is virtually extinct. This is where food science, preparation, and safety used to be imparted to girls of the previous generation. But boys need this information equally, since the "new family" means that 70 percent of men find themselves in charge of getting food on the table at least once a week. With parents working and kitchen-illiterate, both girls and boys need to know how to cook in order to keep themselves and their children metabolically healthy over a lifetime. Cooking is a life skill everyone needs. It is not elitist to want, shop, and cook real food. It is essential to life. What better way to prepare for college or life than to learn food science, navigating the grocery store, preparing real food meals with limited time and/or budget as well impress your girlfriend/boyfriend.
But there's more for our kids to learn than trussing a turkey. Hurricane Sandy just taught us another painful lesson, evidenced by the throngs of lower Manhattanites wandering the streets in the dark. We have virtually no post-apocalyptic subsistence strategies. What to do when the power goes out. How to act in an emergency. How to start and put out a fire. How to wash clothes. Clearly, our lack of basic preparedness resonates; NBC just introduced Revolution, about life with no electrical power. Some of these proficiencies are taught in Boy Scouts, but girls need to equally know these as well. Let's just not call it "home ec." It needs some rebranding -- let's give it a sexier title: Adult Survival Skills (ASS). "Hey, I'm kickin' ASS." That will get them interested.
Robert H. Lustig, M.D., is Professor of Pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco, and the author of the new book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Disease (Hudson Street Press, New York), released today. He invites anyone interested in societal change around obesity to follow him on Facebook starting in the New Year.
Cindy Gershen is chef/owner of Sunrise Bistro in Walnut Creek, CA, and founder of Wellness City Challenge, a community health activist organization.
Shane Valentine is a Marin County Child Care Commissioner, speaker, activist, chef instructor, author of The Baby Cuisine Cookbook, and father of three.