Posted by & filed under Ramblings.

Photo by Bill Stiner


I am happy to share that the video for the TEDxGrandview Ave. talk is now online!

In this talk, I discuss one of the things I am most passionate about: teaching people how to cook. I believe that cooking is the food movement’s LAST MILE PROBLEM. It is a skill that we are losing and it is THE skill that actually connects the farm to our tables.

Link to the video below. Transcript follows. Please feel free to email me for sources.

Thank you to the TEDxGrandviewAve team and the rest of the presenters for such an inspiring event.

We must work on the food movement’s last mile. Our health depends on it.

TEDxGrandview Ave

Today, one in three Americans has pre-diabetes or diabetes —and some estimates show that in about 6 years, every other person in America will have diabetes or prediabetes. Every other person. Perhaps even more sobering, is this CDC statistic: 1 in 3 children born after 2000 will develop diabetes (if the way we live our lives right now continues).

Additionally, over 2/3 — of Americans are overweight or obese. And obesity is comorbid with and predictor of diabetes.

Up to 2/3 of those with diabetes will develop heart disease and diabetics increase their risk of some cancers by up to 50%. That’s the top 2 causes of death in America.

The good news? These numbers are reversible.

What can we do to reverse this trend?


It is not a headline that obesity and diabetes are preventable.

And how can we prevent them? What does that entail?
Top 2 answers on the board…everyone gets this right.
More exercise.
Eat better.

This is not new information. In fact many chronic conditions can be mitigated and even reversed with a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet.

In fact, as of 2010, diet surpassed smoking as the No. 1 risk factor for disease and death in America.

The prescription for prevention is pretty straightforward. Studies have shown that eating 7 servings of fruits and vegetables lowers all-cause mortality.

How are we doing? A 2010 assessment published jointly by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, showed that only 5 percent of Americans are getting the recommended amounts of vegetables. A majority eat about half as many vegetables as they should. And less than half the recommended amount of fruits. And this is not even the aspirational 7 servings — the CDC recommends 4-5 servings depending on age. Even more bothersome, the same study showed that more than half the fruit consumed by children comes from sugar-packed juice. This is like counting the tomato sauce in pizza as a serving of vegetable. Who would do that?

Just 7 servings lowers all cause mortality and many chronic illnesses. Across the board.

I know this to be true because I’m testament to it.

In my 20s, after many years of what seemed like premature arthritis, and many different tests, I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition with a constellation of symptoms. I was given pills to cover each symptom and voila, each symptom did improve. Didn’t disappear. Improved. Improved enough that I could go about my daily life bearably. And because of this, I became a success story. I did not get rid of the pain, I was able to “live with the pain.” That’s called a “success.”

After a few years of taking pills I went back to my doctor and asked when I can expect to be done with them. The answer was “maybe never.” This answer shocked me because I had at least 65 more years to go and I just couldn’t fathom being dependent on medication…at least not so early. I refused to accept it. So I did research, lots of it. And after much reading and self-education, I realized that maybe my diet of weekly supermarket bargains, pizza, burgers, french fries and instant ramen may not be helping. Because you know, all these “new age” people on the internet were talking about changing their lives by changing what they eat. Hmmmm. No doctor ever mentioned this to me. How can this be true?

But I was about to have my first child and I was not about to be a creaky 30-year old running after a toddler, if I can help it. I also wanted to be the healthiest I can be for the boy I was carrying. I refused to live with the pain, I decided to overcome it. So I started to change the way I eat. And you know how the story ends. Yes, I got off all the pills and yes I do not have pain.

The change was not instant nor easy. There were many personal, environmental and social roadblocks to doing so. And we all struggle with them in one form or another.

After such a radical shift in my life — akin to “seeing the light” — I became an evangelist, naturally. I wanted to share this epiphany and help others through their own change.

Many of the people I worked with — through time, because lifelong change is not instant — saw the same revolution happen to their health. We hear these REAL success stories everyday. What I underestimated, though, was how hard it can be for some people.

So I became curious again.

How do we change the way we eat? Why is it so difficult. And it became clearer to me as I started help people navigate the change in their own lives.

In a recent study, 52 percent of Americans (that were polled) believed doing their taxes was easier than figuring out how to eat healthy. Why? Maybe one of the reasons is that our relationship with food has changed from intimacy to estrangement.

Throughout the years, food has become a progressively smaller part of our daily lives.

Fifty years ago, we spent almost 18% of our HH income on food. Today, we spend about 10%. And we are spending those dollars away from home more and more.

We are also spending less of our TIME on food. In the 1960s, we spent about an hour a day preparing food, today we spend about 27 minutes.

This is actual full-contact time with our food. Not the time spent spectating or being recipients of beautiful food that we take pictures of and post on Instagram.

Not only are we spending less time and money on food, we are spending our money on processed food and fast food.

Here are some other numbers:
In 1900, 2 percent of meals were eaten outside the home.
In 2010, 50 percent were eaten away from home and one in five breakfasts is from McDonald’s.
20 percent of all American meals are eaten in the car.
At least 1 in 4 people eat some type of fast food every day.
Americans consume 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food.

But we almost don’t stand a chance. In 2010, the fast food industry spent $4.2 billion in marketing. That’s without including the dollars spent by the processed food industry – $2B of which targeted specifically to children. And, not counting the hundreds of millions spent on lobbying. On the other hand, the annual budget of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion of the USDA is $6.5million. That means that for every $1 the industry spends, less than a tenth of a penny gets spent urging folks to eat their broccoli, kale, collards and spinach.

It’s a David and Goliath Story.

These concurrently dire trends of food and health are one of the main catalysts that sparked the food movement as we know it today.

The food movement—which I consider myself an active part of— has battled to put fresh food on our tables. And give access to everyone.

School gardens and nutrition education in schools – to plant the seed of awareness at an early age.

Working to eliminate food deserts – to give everyone a viable place to buy fresh food.

The farm to table movement is a major force.

Organic farm collectives and CSAs – bringing food to you (by some estimates, there are currently 1500 across the country )

Taking farms to the urban environment. To cities. Urban farms. Community gardens. New data shows that up to 1 in 3 US HH are now gardening!

SNAP and EBT are now accepted at many farmers markets (over 2600 according to the USDA)

Most of my colleagues are builders and beneficiaries of these efforts. And numbers are encouraging. Many are improving their health.

And yet, there is still a big gap. Even with access and choice, what I saw was that many still were not eating in a way that promotes health.

In other words, for most people, the farm is not getting to the table.

Again, why?

There are many reasons but one common theme that was evident in many of the people I worked with truly made me pause.

And as I look at this network of initiatives and the glaring gap, I cant’t help but think of something that was such a paramount concern when I was working in technology in the days of irrational exuberance. The Last Mile. Or to be more exact, The Last Mile Problem.

What is the “last mile?” The last mile is the final leg of a network. The one that actually delivers electricity, water, data to the household, to the user. It is the most numerous of all the connections required in a network and therefore the most difficult to upgrade, to make changes to.

No matter how robust the rest of the network, if the last mile fails, the user experience fails and to that user, renders the network ineffective.

Cooking is the proverbial last mile of the food movement’s network of initiatives to bring real food back. It’s the food movement’s bottleneck.

We are losing something very, very basic. An evolutionary milestone that sets us apart from other species. That has implicated our survival.

We are not cooking.

Here is the problem.

NPD: Less than 50% of our main meals are made from scratch at home. It is worthwhile to note that Harry Balzer, who has been conducting this survey since the 80s has had to lower the bar of “from scratch” to be able to keep a workable sample!

Stove use is declining.

Are we not cooking because we don’t have access to real, fresh food?

Access is an issue and we are working hard to work on the supply-side – making fresh food available and accessible to everyone. CSAs, urban farms, EBT and SNAP at farmer’s markets are all examples of bringing the farm closer to the table. But distance is only one aspect. First in the sample that is the people who come to me for help in changing the way they eat — they all have access. Second, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that given access to a supermarket but given the option of a farther low-cost discount store — many choose a farther low-cost discount store over a closer supermarket — which essentially means they favor supermarkets that sell less fresh food over processed food.

So while access is a valid concern it is not the whole story.

So why are people not cooking?

There are three top reasons on the board.
1. We don’t have time.
2. We can’t afford it.
3. We don’t know how.

Let’s look at time. Its a lie we’ve been led to believe. We hear it everyday in advertising. Quick. Fast. You don’t have time. And yet we do. The American Time Use Survey shows that we spend about 27 minutes preparing food but almost 3 hours a day watching TV. Watching cooking shows and ads that tell us we don’t have time.

Let’s look at affordability.

First, let me say that “foodies” are not immune to this decline in cooking. In the anecdotal sample of people I work with and some of my colleagues in the food world, most can afford a CSA or shop at organic stores. However, it is not an uncommon refrain to hear that half a CSA box goes bad because it went unused.

For sure, for many, the issue of affordability is real. However, for some, price may be a problem of perception.

Mark Bittman’s Op-Ed in the NY Times, makes it graphic.

And let me show you this illustration of how giving a little more time can actually make real food more affordable. A bunch of kale is $2.49 and a box of kale sautéed in garlic is $4.49. That’s 80% more than buying the raw kale. We can buy time by purchasing prepared food or we can save money by giving a little bit more time to cooking food. Cooking makes real food affordable and therefore access to it more sustainable. Its a vicarious cycle.

We have time. Most of us can afford it. Certainly all of us in this room. So that leaves us with the third reason. We don’t know how. Somewhere along the way, this evolutionary milestone started regressing.

Let’s take a look at the person sitting next to us again, on either side.
Take a good look because one of you probably does not know how to cook.

A 2011 cooking survey by Bosch, a maker of appliances, showed that 1/3 of Americans do not know how to cook. 53% feel they have less knowledge than their parents did.

Michael Pollan writes in Cooked, “It is entirely possible that, within another generation, cooking a meal from scratch will seems exotic and ambitious—as “extreme”—as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.”

Farm to table does not look like this it looks like this. (2 graphics).

So if cooking is an evolutionary milestone that implicated our survival, what are the implications of losing the skill to do so?

Where we are now. (Obesity photo).

How do we do fix this last mile? We can start with a few things.

1. The first is that relearning how to cook must become a public health imperative.

Because it is one of the best preventive measures we can take against diabetes, heart disease and chronic illness. While obesity and diabetes are not communicable diseases, they are an epidemic nonetheless. A preventable one. In the same way we have comprehensive campaigns for vaccines and communicable disease prevention, we need to have the same for chronic disease prevention and give people the same access to education, tools and skills. More than we need prescriptions, we need behavioral interventions. Just as we have therapists to help us navigate our emotions and stress and daily lives, we should have counselors and coaches to help us reintegrate our kitchens in our daily lives.

Right now, we put an ounce to prevention and a pound to cure.

In 2005 federal government spent $80B in diabetes management vs. $4B in disease prevention (.2B for diabetes).

This must change.

2. Medical education should strengthen its focus on nutrition and food. Not just pharmacology.

Let’s teach doctors and nurses how to cook.

3. Workplaces need to instill habits not one-offs

Current wellness efforts can generate returns of $1 to $6, what more with consistent encouragement of lifestyle changes? For example, inspite of weight loss programs, it is not uncommon to see vending machines — more kitchens? Points not only for losing weight but also for cooking your own packed lunch?

4. Food education in schools. All schools.

Food, nutrition, cooking — what used to be known, quite pejoratively as “home ec” — should make a comeback in schools. And boys and girls should be required to take it.

Just as we go to school to learn concepts that lay the foundation for creativity that spurs innovation, we need to go back to the basics to solve the health crisis that we are in now.

Dilworth Story – school garden experience >> lunch room is processed food. Even at school level, the farm is not getting to the (lunch room) table.

5. Cooking and health must figure prominently in policy and planning initiatives.

Gallup estimates that the obesity cost to cities is $50M per 100K residents. So it costs our city about $150M per year, equivalent to 30% of our city’s operating budget.

Let’s magnify that. The total estimated cost of diagnosed diabetes in 2012 is $245 billion, including $176 billion in direct medical costs and $69 billion in reduced productivity.

Let’s imagine that that money is available for education, for one thing.

The Center for American Progress’s “Cities at Work” report identifies building healthy cities as central to urban progress. The report talks about land use policies, city planning priorities to include walkability and parks, equitable access to fresh food. I believe that cities should also take an active part in food education.

A cooking school as a community center. If the kitchen is the heart of a home, a community kitchen is the heart of a city. A kitchen school as a health center. A central hub that can be accessed by everyone. This is the Square Food Foundation in Bristol in the UK where for less than $5 a class, people can attend food education and cooking programs.

Nutrition education for all. Teach not only how to cook but also the skills associated with successfully integrating it in our lives — time management, budgeting. Cooking not just as recreation but an essential survival skill.

These are some ideas on how to solve the food movement’s last mile. The kitchen bottleneck.

Cooking needs to be central to the food movement’s advocacy. Not an auxiliary of other initiatives but an initiative of its own. It is the last mile and it’s a problem. Because its the link that actually gets real food to our plates.

Putting focus on the last mile problem of the food movement renders the entire movement more effective. Teaching people how to cook creates symbiosis with the larger movement. People who cook and people who are healthy are more interested in where their food comes from. Cooking makes us more intimate with our food and deepens our relationship with it. Its how the farm gets to the table.

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