The man most responsible for causing us to examine what we put onto our plates and into our mouths with his blockbuster Omnivore’s Dilemma is at it again, this time with a book titled Cooked. My copy arrived last week. I love how he once again uncovers fundamental truths that have somehow gotten lost in our postmodern shuffle — hidden-in-plain-sight, simple, logical truths. Just as he peeled back the layers on processed food and industrial farming, this time he engages in the ancient, timeless, and indispensable ritual of cooking.

It is almost ironic that the most eloquent spokesman for the food policy movement was not as he might be imagined — skilled in the kitchen, whipping up all sorts of healthful and delicious meals with confidence — and more significantly — with passion. Not the case, Pollan honestly states in the powerful opening to this new book: “the mildness of my interest in cooking surprises me since my interest in every other link of the food chain had been so keen” (p. 2). Pollan discovers the magic of the cooking process on a personal level but clearly connects it to his search; “….for years I had been trying to determine… what is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable?” (p. 1). In this book, Pollan states that cooking is “one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do,” transforming our lives (p. 11). “I learned far more than I ever expected to about the nature of work, the meaning of health, about tradition and ritual self-reliance and community, the rhythms of everyday life, and the supreme satisfaction of producing something I previously could only have imagined consuming…” (p. 12).

In 2006 we established The Sylvia Center for the purpose of connecting a young and vulnerable population of children to a lifeline that could potentially help shape their lives for the better. We would teach them about cooking delicious, healthy food — in season when possible — in a fun and socially engaging environment. A brainstorming session early on created the mission tagline: “Inspiring children to eat well.” Obesity and other diet-related diseases were on our mind, but we knew that to make a change, we would have to involve our young students in a positive and socially engaging program.

We started at Katchkie Farm, where The Sylvia Center team carved out a one-acre children’s garden in the heart of the farm. As children arrived at the farm, they would explore the wide, rainbow-shaped kid-friendly rows, nibbling greens, flowers, weeds, and veggies they never imagined existed. They would plant and harvest before moving to the next activity — chopping together and preparing a meal they would share as a community at the picnic tables adorned with field flowers.

Did we know for sure that if we connected these young eaters to food in a new and slightly radical way, that they might start to think differently about what they were eating? Yes and no — but we believed that on that day, as they experienced a farm along with some vegetables for the first time, that we were “planting seeds.”

And as the program expanded to NYC and we started working in various community centers within the New York City Housing Authority, the effect was equally powerful. There is unexpected joy in being able to transform a raw food product into something delicious. Cooking is a critical skill that grows with time and provides the ability to care for oneself or a family. It is independence from poor food choices and from the world of absolutely unhealthy processed food. It is a connection to great flavors and bridges the disconnect from remote celebrity chefs by making it real and attainable.

So, here we are, working for over seven years with the clear belief that our culinary-based program would positively influence food choices and health outcomes. As funders and potential donors looked at our work, their requests for metrics that connect the work to our stated outcome were amplified. The analysis is happening as we speak.

This is where Michael Pollan steps in. As Michelle Obama did with her White House Garden and Let’s Move campaign, sometimes it takes someone of great stature to galvanize support for something that is in fact not complicated and even obvious. Plant a garden, engage in physical activity — see how things can change. Cook a meal with children — offer them wonderful fresh foods — and see if they don’t respond positively, refilling their plates.

Back to Michael Pollan — “The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization” (p. 8 of Cooked). As a culture, we have lost our way to the kitchen, distracted by hard days at work, and seduced by the myriad of options from fast food to alluring restaurants and easy frozen or prepared supermarket options. But when we find the joy, taste, and beauty of cooking in the kitchen, something wonderful happens.

Thank you, Michael, for “Pollan-ating” our program. We take this as an affirmation that we are on the right path and are thrilled that we share the joy and benefits of cooking with you.

See you in the kitchen!

-Liz Neumark

The International Restaurant and Foodservice Show of New York rolls into town every March with a vast array of vendors and displays. From kitchen equipment to software, ice cream to state-of-the-art doggie bags, you will find it here. My favorite section is one that has been steadily growing – The Pride of New York. From a paltry lineup of jam and pickles several years ago – to now a robust gathering of producers featuring a sophisticated assortment of New York State products, this is where you want to be to nibble on amazing spelt rolls (Orwasher’s using local grain), sip sour cherry juice (Red Jacket Orchards), indulge in hard cider (Breezy Hill Orchard), sample outstanding pickled veggies (Rick’s Picks), smear some sensational jam on toast (Beth’s Farm Kitchen, Katchkie Farm Tomato Jam), dip into artisanal ketchup (Sir Kensington’s Gourmet Scooping Ketchup, Katchkie Ketchup) or try a tidbit of local meat. It is a true celebration of the breadth, depth, and bounty of our state.

The explosion of interest in locally grown products is a boon for farmers and small businesses and is ushering in a new breed of entrepreneurs as well – aggregators creating hubs for collection, production, and distribution in diverse geographic regions of the state. Farm to City Expo- Growing the Local Food Economy: Trends, Infrastructure, and Purchasing convened on Monday during the show, co-sponsored by Speaker Christine Quinn’s officeEmpire State Development, and NYS Dept. of Agriculture and Markets. Now that is a power lineup promoting our local food system. This was a day of positive economic indicators, highlighted by President, CEO, and Commissioner of ESD Kenneth Adams’ presentation of successful state initiatives around food:

1. Fresh Connect: increasing the sale of locally grown food across the state with a particular focus on underserved communities and providing support and training for farmers. In the launch year 2011 alone, over 100 farmers were connected to market outlets.
2. Food Hubs: providing $3.6 million to 10 regional councils across the state for innovative “centers” that promulgate collection, processing, and distribution of locally grown products. New projects include Hudson Valley Harvest and J. King’s Agriculture Enterprise Park.
3. The success of the first New York State Yogurt Summit: NY State has gone from producing $150 million to $1.8 billion in yogurt and from 14 to 29 processing plants.
4. Wine, Beer, and Spirits Summit: a $22 billion industry, now fast-tracked for “one-stop-shop” of government regulations, licensing, and other requirements – a move lauded by growers and the New York Farm Bureau.

The 3 panels that followed each focused on a different segment of the supply/demand chain starting with infrastructure needs and wholesalers – moderated by Marcel Van Ooyen, Executive Director of GrowNYC; to institutional buyers – moderated by Karen Karp of Karp Resources; and finally, the smaller-scale food buyers closest to consumers, the restaurants. I had the honor of moderating this panel of three Brooklyn restaurateurs and one from Manhattan.

In an age of celeb chef and telegenic personalities, these individuals reminded everyone of why (and how) chefs evolve. It is, in its more inspiring moment, a calling. Chefs Cheryl Smith, George Weld, and Robert Newton grew up in homes with distinctive culinary cultures inspired by traditions and were imbued with a deep love of ingredients, cooking, and family in the kitchen. Jeffrey Zurofsky learned to cook to escape the culinary tyranny of his mom, who supported the family but did not find inspiration in the kitchen.

Each chef expressed a deep connection to local ingredients for their flavor and an appreciation for the transparency and knowing where their food came from. I learned a lot from talking to the chefs before our panel.

Chef George Weld shared his sourcing hierarchy – and we can all learn from it. At the top is the best practice to least desirable:
1. Grow it ourselves
2. Buy it organic, local from someone we know
3. Buy it locally from someone we know
4. Buy it regionally from someone we know
5. Buy it from far away, from someone we know
6. Buy it from far away, from someone we don’t know

His commitment to knowing the people who grow the ingredients he buys – be they near or far – is a core value, along with an awareness of the environmental impact of the food and exclusive purchase of humanely raised livestock. To control prices when dealing with more costly ingredients, he advises keeping recipes simple, controlling the waste, and creating menus that are easy to replicate.

Perhaps what touched me most in his approach to sourcing was his concern about doing enough to help farmers. “What about farmers without access to sophisticated and well off urban markets and shoppers?” – he worries about them.

Chef Robert Newton shared his resolute commitment to using humanely raised livestock and extending the notion of fresh food to incorporate beverages and spirits, with a hierarchy of local – regional – American to guide his selections. His connection to buying local comes with a deep respect for farmers from his childhood in Arkansas to time spent at culinary school in Vermont. Cooking in season and preserving the harvest are basic rules he embraces. Again, simplicity and a deep connection to the artistry of creating the building blocks of his meals (be it animal, produce or dairy products) guide his selections.

I learned a lot from Chef Cheryl Smith, who shared her passion for connecting her community around the table; she is actively involved with mentoring local youth about food and culinary careers. As one might expect, the hurdles facing a woman in the culinary world are steep, but what one quickly learns about Cheryl is that her drive is as strong as her passion for flavors. Her mom worked 3-4 jobs and cooked the family meals, so the next meal was always marinating. Flavors that go right through the food, not on the surface, have become her signature. Her restaurant is across the street from a Greenmarket and that is what shows up on her plates. The restaurant is a source of great pride especially at that peak moment nightly, when the clanking of pots blend perfectly with the sounds of laughter and conversation.

And Jeffrey Zurofosky (both of us serve on the GrowNYC board) was clear – the demand for local food, coupled with the increased production of local food, creates a virtuous cycle. What is an outstanding accomplishment is the high percentage of locally sourced food he utilizes in his large volume operation – up to 30% of ingredients. He sees indirect benefits – like increased agro-tourism and economic boosts to economically depressed rural areas – as tangential benefits to supporting local production. It was delightful to hear him say that upstate farmers selling to downstairs urbanites is a form of redistribution of wealth!

And these are truly the partners for the next generation of eaters and farmers–chefs involved in their communities, clear on their food choices and committed to their principles. I may have been the moderator, but I was also the student.