Friday, April 23, 2010

Who is Responsible To Our Children?

With the finale of Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" tonite, I got to thinking about the question of ultimately who should be responsible for the state of our childrens health right now and what they put into their mouths. There are 4 factors to the equation that can make or break the system. I outline them below and offer just a couple of comments about each to think about.

#1-Food Advertisers-There is more money spent on marketing to children too young to rationally weigh the pros and cons of a particular product, especially food products, than any other demographic. Fast food, snacks, sugary juice beverages, candy, you name it. They are all geared at appealing to a young childs eyes. They are bright, colorful, have cute cartoon characters associated with them and they make kids feel like they are participating in something that everyone else is doing. It's a terrible marketing ploy that undermines good parenting. How can a parent possibly combat the multi-sensory media that is constantly bombarding their children, not just at home, on tv or the computer, but at school? Numerous schools are being approached by companies like Coca-Cola who are placing vending machines in schools and offering them big money to do so. A school facing a budget crisis would be stupid not to take these companies up on the offer, but at the same time, at what expense to their students who are buying these products?

#2-Teachers-Lets be honest, kids spend a good portion of their waking hours with their teachers. Teachers can be extremely powerful influences on childrens lives as kids look up to them. This is an opportunity to affect change that is a huge responsibiltiy and one many teachers are taking seriously. For example, one of my cooking class students and a great friend who is a teacher has made it her goal to teach kids through cooking. This week she had her kids select a bunch of veggies for a stir fry and made them lunch, on her buck. She decided it was so effective and the kids enjoyed it so much, that she is going to try to do this weekly. That is a dedicated and inspirational teacher whose example should be followed by many.

#3-Government-One of the glaring gaps in the food system that "Food Revolution" has shown is in USDA regulations that are being followed by all schools. The logic that a child should have flavored milk options because it is better for them to drink any milk rather than not drink milk at all is ludicrous. Kids are hungry. They are growing. If they are hungry or thirsty enough, they'll drink and eat what's available. Get rid of the sugary, salty crap in schools and feed them healthy options. Too many kids are being diagnosed with ADD and other illnesses and are being fed medications like candy to treat something that is directly attributable to what they are putting into their bodies. Get rid of the sugar and kids will calm down. Stop poisoning them with chemicals they don't actually need. I'm not saying there aren't legitimate diagnoses for ADD, but the increase recently is fishy to me and this sentiment is shared by numerous teachers I am friends with. And of course, as we have already discussed in a previous blog, there are issues of classification of foods by the USDA. Putting french fries in the same category as broccoli or spinach is ludicrous.

#4-Parents-I'm not a parent. I can't imagine in this day and age, with a dual income household and most kids more interested in playing with their computers and texting than going outside to play ball how tough it is to raise kids. I know the challenges are out there. But, with that said, there are a lot of people doing all the right things and I want to applaud them. Our neighbor who has 4 kids works part time and her husband works full time. She also is a volunteer for numerous things from the Library to the high school vegetable garden. Yet, she takes the time to plant her own vegetables and goes out of her way to cook good, nutritious meals for her family because it means something to her. Her kids are all active, healthy, not fussy about what they eat and do well in school. Her attitude never seems stressed or overwhelmed. She does what she does because it makes her feel good and it's right. I don't think she is superwoman, I just think she has made this a priority for herself and her family. I wish more parents could take her lead and emulate her habits. I admire her immensely and would encourage those who think they can't do the same to reevaluate whether they legitimately can't or just don't feel like it.

I know this is harsh, but it's the reality. We have to start looking at this or our future, the future of the world is in jeopardy. Lets not worry about Aztec calendars and Nostradamus predictions for the end of the world. My fear is that it isn't an end per se, but a self-induced poisoning, one that will seriously jeopardize the future generation. Just recently a story came out suggesting that childhood obesity is a national security risk as army generals feel that 25% of kids are too obese to pass basic fitness requirements to serve. And the FDA just imposed stricter regulations on the amount of salt allowed in foods, which has gotten out of control, leading to skyrocketing cases of heart disease, hypertension and more.

Food can nourish, but it can also kill. We have to start paying attention to what we are putting into our bodies. You are what you eat isn't just a catchy bumper sticker. It's reality and it's an oppourtunity to be in control of something. Take control of yourself and of our future.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

And just one more thing, french fries aren't a vegetable!!!

For anyone who has been watching "Food Revolution" you will understand where i'm coming from. During one episode Jamie Oliver was challenged by the management of one of the schools he was at when he produced a seven vegetable stir fry with chicken and was told that it didn't have enough vegetables in it. As an alternative the meal provided by the school that day which fit USDA guidelines was a chicken sandwich on a white bun with french fries. The vegetable quota in this case was met by, you guessed it, french fries. Now theoretically potatoes fall under the vegetable category, but let's be realistic here, starchy, greasy french fries aren't what I would consider a "health food." Sure they are tasty and a special treat now and again, but let's not fool ourselves into believing we are doing something good for ourselves by eating fries instead of other colorful veggies.

There is a critical disjoint between what we perceive to be healthy for us and what actually is. Quantity is sought after far before quality and generally that quantity is achieved through foods that are mostly fried and white or golden brown in color. Perhaps because people haven't been exposed to vegetables or perhaps because they don't know how to cook them, there seems to be a large number of people who have serious issues with eating their vegetables. I have heard numerous times that if it is green I won't touch it from guests or students in my cooking classes. I usually take it as a challenge and then weasle the veggies in on them. Most of the time they are surprised when they actually like them because I very rarely simply steam a vegetable or cover it with Velveeta, another topic I won't cover here.

Learning to cook vegetables is probably the single best thing you can do not only for your health, but your taste buds. Take the opportunity of the coming of spring and the advent of fresh veggies to make yourself a promise. Promise to try something new each week. Whether it's parsnips or turnips or eggplant, just give it a shot. I promise not only will you not be disappointed, your body will thank you. Here are just a couple suggestions of my favorite veggies to eat. Keep in mind the best ways to cook veggies are to roast them or saute them lightly in olive oil. Not only will you maintain texture but the flavor of the vegetables will be naturally highlighted.

Roasted Asparagus with Freshly Grated Parmesan and Balsamic Reduction

Yields: 4-6 Servings

1 lb Asparagus, Trimmed
2 Tbl Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to taste
2 Tbl Freshly Grated Parmesan Cheese
2 Tbl Balsamic Reduction

For the balsamic reduction, place the contents of a bottle of balsamic vinegar in a saucepan. Make sure you read your labels. Not all balsamic vinegars are actually balsamic vinegar but rather wine vinegars that are flavored and dyed to be imposters. Use the real deal here. Bring to a boil and continue to simmer over medium heat until the liquid has evaporated by almost 2/3, leaving a thick syrup behind. This can be kept in a squirt bottle at room temperature in a cool, dry place.

To trim the asparagus, hold each end of the asparagus and gently snap where the asparagus naturally breaks. Repeat with all the remaining asparagus.

Place the aspragus on a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss gently to coat with your hands and spread out in a single layer on your baking sheet. Using a micro-plane, grate a thin layer of parmesan onto the asparagus. Bake in a pre-heated 375 degree oven for 15 mins. Place onto a serving dish and immediately drizzle with balsamic reduction. Serve hot.

Eggplant Chips

Yields: 4-6 Servings

3-4 Japanese Eggplants, Sliced 1/4" thick
Kosher Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3-4 Garlic Cloves, Minced

Place eggplant slices in a single layer onto paper towels. Sprinkle with salt and cover with more paper towels. Allow to sit for approx. 1 hr to pull out the moisture of the eggplant. Pat dry. Fill a saute pan approx. 1/4 full with olive oil and heat over medium high. Fry eggplant in batches until golden brown and crispy, approx. 3-4 mins per side. Remove to paper towels and season with salt and pepper on both sides. Transfer to serving dish and garnish with freshly minced garlic.