By Jason Stemm @NYCubsFan
This past week I was in Washington DC for the International Foodservice Editorial Council’s annual conference. As president of the group, it was quite a bit different than the previous ten years I’ve attended. The group and conference are driven by the unique opportunity for editors and writers to network with publicists, marketers, operators and brands that make up the membership. We share our opportunities, challenges and what is happening in the world of restaurants, catering and noncommercial foodservice.
Like all of our conferences, it tends to take on the character of the host city, and this year was no different. Being in Washington, the conference was kicked off by an eye opening and inspiring keynote by Sam Kass, Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives for the White House and the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign. He shared alarming statistics that show if we do not do something to combat the upward curve of childhood obesity, one in three Americans will have diabetes in their lifetime. We considered the potential impact not only on the lives and wellness of our population, but the economic impact on our healthcare and employers due to lost productivity and sickness. He recalled a meeting with a four star general who looked at obesity as the greatest national security threat as he deals with the potential of more than 1 in 4 Americans being medically unfit to serve in the military. Chef Kass also talked about some of the pillars of the Let’s Move effort including working with the schools, increasing access to nutritious options, empowering kids and parents with information, and offering greater choice.
One of the initiatives I found particularly interesting is the Chef’s Move to Schools. They are working with chefs in communities across the country to work with school food administrators and cooks as well as teachers and children to improve not only what is offered in schools, but what kids choose to eat. I thought of my 2 year old as he described a young girl visiting the White House garden who couldn’t get enough of the fresh cauliflower that she had never had, and didn’t even know what it was. It is already one of my daughter’s favorite vegetables. He left us with the campaigns ultimate desire to help people realize that we are all stakeholders in this issue, and involvement and support is needed at all levels.
The next day we had a lively panel discussion that brought together different perspectives on food issues and policies that are impacting the industry. The panel included a restaurateur and fresh seafood supplier as well as the VP of Nutrition and Wellness for Compass Group North America and the VP of Industry Affairs and Food Policy for the National Restaurant Association. It was a candid discussion of menu labeling, employer healthcare mandates and sustainability initiatives currently being discussed on the Hill. I think one of the greatest takeaways was the need for involvement from the industry in a collaborative effort to find solutions that are reasonable and implementable. A primary fear is for policy makers who don’t understand complex industries to write rules that look good on paper or sound good in press releases, but are impossible to implement and detrimental to the industry.
Yesterday we got out and around the city for food tours. I chose to visit the new employee cafeteria at the Department of Interior that was renovated with two main directives, wellness and sustainability. They hit a home run on both. They offer wellness and education programs for workers, along with choice and information for customers that includes a farm stand of fresh fruits and vegetables, and an array of options, easily identified with calorie and nutrient information to make informed choices. They were also proud of the compost room, which can take 100 pounds of waste and break it down to 10 pounds that is sent to a facility to be processed into compost for their onsite garden. It is a remarkable closed cycle that is drastically reducing the waste heading to landfills. This is an area that the federal government has taken the lead on to get in front of an issue that is already a growing crisis for some municipalities.
The themes we kept hearing and returning to were those of involvement, education and choice. The cafeteria isn’t eliminating barbecued ribs and French fries, but they are empowering customers to make informed choices for themselves. Let’s Move doesn’t want to dictate policy but create a platform to enable others to take the ball and run with it. They want everyone to realize that we have a stake in this game, whether we are a parent, an employer, a school or simply a fellow American. These are complex issues, and a one size fits all approach doesn’t always work, but with greater involvement, education and choice, we will be in a position to make a difference.