Fresh food access and cooking confidence are key
Article contributed by Bill Telepan – Director of Sustainability, Institute of Culinary Education
Recently, at a talk for the Greater New York Dietetic Association, I was asked to share my thoughts on food waste, access and education. I’ve focused on food waste in the past, but access to food is not something we talk about enough and I appreciated the opportunity to address it.
As chefs, we don’t always realize the hardship of not having access to food, let alone the ability to source fresh ingredients. You’d be surprised to learn how many urban and rural areas don’t have grocery stores. In urban settings, rent is prohibitively high, making it nearly impossible for supermarkets to open, or stay open. And many of these businesses choose not to go into low income neighborhoods because they don’t want the added burden of processing SNAP benefits. This creates what we call “food deserts” — places in which access to food is highly limited. The few stores that do open generally don’t sell fresh ingredients, making processed and canned foods the norm for families in these areas.
Incentivizing for stores in low income neighborhoods to sell fresh food, thereby increasing access, is one way to alleviate this problem. For this to work, state and local governments could subsidize these stores, or find a way for smaller stores to purchase fresh produce at reasonable prices. Perhaps this is where supermarkets could divert their “ugly” produce — fruits and vegetables deemed too imperfect for sale in chain stores, rather than wasting it.
There are ways in which organizational help can come into play, too. In New York City, for example, we have green carts. These are similar to hot dog carts, but instead of hot dogs and ‘kraut, these are stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re also mobile, which means they’re not limited to a specific neighborhood, bringing access to a wider geographic pool. Here, we’re also fortunate to have greenmarkets, which are now opening in more low-income communities. All of the greenmarkets accept food stamps, and in some cases, they offer “double the dollars” for people purchasing fresh ingredients.
This is a good first step when it comes to food sourcing; then there is the issue of cooking. I remember when I went into rural Kentucky to give cooking classes to some of the teachers. I realized that many of them did not have basic kitchen skills themselves. I was showing them how to handle a whole chicken and when I asked for volunteers, only two people volunteered demonstrating a lack of kitchen confidence. But the class was a success – the teachers learned to roast a chicken and create different meals with the meat and carcass, therefore using the whole product. There was no waste and we created meals with more bang for the buck.
But you don’t need to know how to roast a whole chicken. Cooking can be simple, with just some trial and error. I taught my wife and daughter how to quickly sauté vegetables with a lot of flavor, and a nutritious pasta if they were in a pinch. You might remember home economics or learning to cook in school? I actually learned how to sew a button on a jacket that I still wear today in one of these classes. Where are classes that teach practical life skills now?
That leads me to another area of discussion: education.
Imagine if every family had the tools to create healthy dishes that could be stretched into multiple meals and require fewer ingredients. Teaching families how to both cook, which can be very intimidating, and to save money while doing so will help both the family budget and their control over the healthfulness of their meals. But how do you ask a single mom of two who may work multiple jobs to cook for her family when she has limited cooking skills, limited time, and there is no access to fresh ingredients at a good price? The problem is manifold, but there are things we can do.
It starts with education and changing the idea of food and eating on a societal level. We need to educate families on the importance of eating well, and seeing food as essential energy for living; every bite counts. We need to teach cooking skills, as early as possible, and ensure that all families have access to real ingredients. We need to understand that, as many studies show, children who eat well learn better and can be a more productive future workforce. We’ve seen the connection between rising obesity rates and the lowering school ranks as a nation — this correlation won’t change on its own.
We can definitely connect wasted food to these areas that need access. We also need to make cooking easier for all. As future and present culinary leaders, we need to raise awareness to these issues and to help when we can.
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