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

I love food — being around it, cooking and eating it, sharing and learning about it — and most meaningfully, making sure that the bounty and access I have is also available to others.

I was at the National Food Policy Conference, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America, in DC last week. Attendees included individuals from government agencies, the food industry, academia, public interest organizations, various nonprofits, nutritionists, activists, PR companies — all interested in key food policy issues. As we sat for two days, listening to speakers and panelists on controversial topics facing consumers, manufacturers, producers, and government, the urgency and complexity of food policy issues multiplied, exacerbated by a fiscal crisis, political inertia, and special interest lobbying. There is a lot to think about, there is a lot to worry about and there is so much to do.

Over the past several months, I have attended a handful of food policy events, from TedxManhattan‘s “Changing the Way We Eat” to Just Food‘s “Eat-Work-Grow the Movement” Conference to the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy’s “Bringing Policy to the Table: New Food Strategies for a Healthier Society.” And there are more gatherings and conversations weekly across a wide range of institutions and organizations across the country, too numerous to list. With each conversation, I learn more and go deeper into topics I am already familiar with. Here are the top hot topics from my perspective, inspired by the DC conference and on agendas everywhere.

1. How safe is our food? How does the FDA monitor domestic food products (as well as what comes into the U.S. food system from other countries?) What about the additives food companies use in processed food under the GRAS provision (Generally Recognized As Safe) since 1958 — a provision intended for common food ingredients, now used to categorize close to 10,000 food additives, 3,000 of which have not been tested by the FDA’s own admission. Tom Neltner, the director of the Food Additives Project in The Pew Health Group at The Pew Charitable Trusts, shared research on testing guidelines. Another concern is the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food; in the U.S., food companies are not required to list GMO or genetically engineered (GE) foods. Along these same lines, the use of antibiotics in the animals we eat is a growing concern. Other critical issues around animal welfare standards continue to emerge and challenge our system where meat is artificially cheap, the externalized cost borne via environmental and health bills we all pay. Individual state-level laws that prohibit (and in fact criminalize) undercover reporting of factory farming of animals — the “Ag Gag” — are troubling, to say the least.

2. Food Waste — NRDC released figures estimating food waste to be 30-40 percent of what travels from farm to fork through the U.S. food system. The EPA estimates this to be over 65 billion pounds of food a year, a large portion from household waste. The implications of this figure range from tangible quantities of food which could be used to fight hunger; the impact of wasted food production and our limited natural resources as agriculture and food production can be extremely energy and water-intensive; and food waste is a major component of our landfills. Food waste could be diverted into productive use through composting. The UN has launched an anti-food waste initiative, thinkeatsave.org, underscoring the global importance of immediate action.

3. Hunger and Food Insecurity — according to the USDA, in 2012, 1 in 4 Americans participated in a government food or nutrition assistance program. Their research shows that 68 percent of food-insecure families contain at least one full-time working adult. Most food stamp/SNAP beneficiaries are children, seniors, working parents, and people with disabilities. A signature of our times, the prevalence of hunger with obesity, is in part the result of lack of access to healthy foods in many low-income communities and the predominance of cheap, unhealthy calories. Other contributing factors, such as lifestyle, unemployment, and healthcare, are part of a complex web of social conditions, with food being a key component. It must be unacceptable to all of us that in the richest country in the history of the world, families strategically plan for days when family members will not eat because they have no food.

4. Immigration Reform — how the lack of policy affects agricultural workers and farmers with a cascade of issues from decent working conditions and fair wages for migrant and undocumented farmworkers to the ability of farmers to hire steady and authorized workers. In the U.S., we underestimate how important the immigrant contribution is to our food system.

5. Farm Bill legislation — from subsidies to the largest growers to the impact on key nutrition program funding, the Farm Bill touches vast swaths of American lives in ways most of us don’t know. Polls show that many Americans favor reducing subsidy payments to the largest farmers, and at the same time want to continue to pay for programs funding local as well as international anti-hunger relief efforts. Congress did not succeed in passing a new farm bill in 2012 and extended the 2008 bill for nine months.

6. Impact of climate change on our food supply — the extreme weather patterns affecting farm communities, from droughts, flooding, temperature extremes, and other uncontrollable conditions. Every conversation about agriculture now includes provisions for thinking about an altered landscape.

7. The impact of reduced resources on regulation, legislation, and change — what does the current economic climate hold for food policy issues? Think about this — the poultry industry has grown four-fold since the Reagan era, yet the inspection budget has not. Looking ahead, the poultry industry will potentially self-regulate. Currently, government inspectors look at 140 birds/minute. Under proposed changes, poultry industry inspectors will look at 175/minute, leaving 1/3 of a second for each bird to be inspected. This will save the government about $90 million over 3 years. Self-regulating industry — what an optimistic concept.

This is a partial list — a mini “menu” of the myriad of issues categorized as the food policy agenda. I return to my day job as CEO of Great Performances, where we feed the most privileged New Yorkers daily, with new determination to make every meal we cook help fuel an agenda that demands accountability for what is in the food we serve and who is missing at the table.

Liz Neumark