Changing the Food Landscape, One Person at a Time: Part One

After I wrote about school lunches a couple of weeks ago -- and received many comments both for and against (mostly for) my argument that school lunches didn't seem to be doing many favors to children in the weight and nutrition department -- I thought I'd go on a little journey to see who was doing what about the "Bad Institutional Lunch! Bad!" issue, aside from government functionaries.

It turns out there is a lot of innovation going on, none of it -- surprise, surprise -- having anything to do with food safety bills or mandates from state law makers. In fact, government is where the least amount of innovation seems to be happening. When I had the good fortune of helping Laurie David with her inspired book, The Family Dinner an organization called Revolution Foods crossed my radar. Co-founders and business school buddies Kristin Richmond and Kristen Toby founded the non-profit as a way of bringing healthy meals into schools -- and since its inception in 2006 the program has succeeded in bringing colorful, veggie-rich whole food meals to more than 100 education programs in California, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.

Kristin and Kristen are not the only "change makers" out there. So, over the next few weeks, and as part of the holiday spirit, I'd like to tell you about some amazing people, from different parts of the country, who don't know each other and have gone on very different food paths -- but who have developed models that can change the way not only our kids eat, but change the kinds of food that are served at every institutional level -- from schools to prisons, nursing homes to soup kitchens.

Let's face it: many people in the US, at some point in their lives, depend on sustenance from sources other than themselves or their families. We have to care as much about what goes on outside of the home in terms of food as we do about what's in our own pantries. And I truly hope that one of the messages that comes across from this little series is that we have to let people -- individuals -- innovate, experiment, succeed and fail -- and try again -- if we want to get anything done. People are agile and can react quickly to new ideas, whereas bureaucracies by their very nature can't.

Chef Timothy Tucker: The Will to Serve

In 2005 Timothy Tucker was a rising star in high end restaurant kitchens. After graduating from Sullivan University's Culinary Program in 1998 and working on the line at both The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and The Painted Table in Seattle, in 2005 he gave up the chance at a 6-figure salary and culinary stardom to accept less than $40,000 a year to oversee food prep and service at the Louisville Salvation Army's Center of Hope.

It was a daunting task, serving breakfast and dinner daily to 400 homeless and low-income men, women and families (including babies and small children). And not just for obvious logistical reasons -- there were some deeply ingrained ideas about food held by the population served at the center. Patrons wanted their day old cinnamon buns and donuts for breakfast (donated by a local food company) and canned soup and hotdogs for lunch. Timothy saw immediately that serving leftover junk food to marginal people reinforced, consciously or not, the idea that they weren't worthy of anything better. "Diet affects all areas of an individual life, from the way a person functions to their attitude and interpersonal relationships," he tells me from his sabbatical in Italy where he's involved in the Slow Food movement.

If you have ever volunteered for the Salvation Army or for a homeless shelter, or perhaps have been a client, you know that the food served is by design heavy and filling -- taste and nutrition are tertiary considerations. The laws of economics, moreover, are such that many soup kitchens rely on donations of non-perishables (read: canned, boxed, processed) and that many needy people depend on the quick "energy" that high-fat, high-sugar foods give them that unfortunately carries none of the health benefits their bodies need and crave.

Timothy learned quickly and dramatically that people are very emotional about both food and change. "Forget it -- I'll dumpster dive behind the Dunkin' Donuts before I'll eat an apple," was the prevailing attitude. Fresh green beans instead of Tater Tots? See you later. In his zeal to make culinary converts out of his clients he'd forgotten the lesson he'd learned at the Mansion and the Painted Table: take it slow when changing long-established menu favorites. So his first lesson at the Center of Hope was humility.

So upset were the patrons by Timothy's switching pastry for apples and bananas; processed meat white bread sandwiches for salad and from-scratch casseroles that his tires were slashed not once, but several times. "One night three of my tires were slashed -- I can change one tire, but three? That episode rattled me," he admits. A patron even had the wherewithal to pen a letter of complaint to Louisville's mayor -- the gist of which was, how dare this guy come in and try to serve us fresh vegetables? Staff took bets on how long he would last. They shouldn't have bothered. Undaunted, Timothy continued on his quest to improve the state of institutional food in his tiny corner of the world.

He started with the kitchen itself; it was a mess, literally and figuratively. "Bags of avocados and other produce lay on the floor rotting; pantry items weren't stored properly and in unclean ways. I reorganized the kitchen following professional level protocol, with knives sharpened and stowed properly, perishables refrigerated properly to extend their shelf life, and our pantries organized so nothing went to waste and ingredients could easily be found," he says. The staff wasn't happy about it -- and most of them quit after realizing their jobs would entail more than wielding a can opener. Which was fine with Timothy since this gave him a chance to hire people who were simpatico with his philosophy and mission.

He also established a culinary program to educate a small group of willing and able participants, many culled straight from the soup line. It's a 10-week course followed by a 4-week internship at one of several local restaurants. After having been served healthy, whole food for several months, customers and students began a remarkable transformation. Instead of craving packaged and processed food, they rejected poor quality products, seeking out fresh, whole food -- and some of them even started reading labels.

"Graduates of the program -- some of whom had never seen a vegetable in its fresh picked state -- now qualify to start in entry level positions at restaurants, and some of them are on the path to work at fine dining establishments," says Timothy.

Since 2006, 50 men and women have graduated from the program. Maybe this doesn't seem like a lot to you. To my mind, it's a miracle: one person not only preventing 50 others from living on the streets but also helping them find and hone a passion for wholesome food is a major accomplishment that many of us, despite our resumes and charitable check writing, will never be able to claim. And what ripples will those 50 people cause in the lives of the people they know and interact with? That's how change, real change, happens.

The way Timothy turned food service and education around at the Center of Hope is a combination of commonsense, perseverance, and basic food prep and planning he learned at school and as a line chef. It is a model, in fact, which can be used by any institution charged with the task of serving multiple meals economically, efficiently and simultaneously (he regularly gets calls from nursing homes and other institutions to consult). "There's no de facto reason why you have to serve canned or frozen or processed food just because 400 people are lining up for dinner," he says. And he's proved it:

Grow it yourself. "The first thing I did was plant gardens in the back of the facility so we'd have fresh herbs all year long and we could grow some vegetables," he says. Students, some patrons, and volunteers tend the beds. Let's hope the recently passed food safety bill does not prevent innovators, small farmers and individuals from growing their own food, as some food co-ops have feared. For-profits can institute volunteer garden programs, work with local farmers and community gardens. Hospitals, nursing homes, halfway houses and prisons can establish garden therapy programs -- which evidence suggests helps residents emotionally, physically and nutritionally.

Source the right food. One of the toughest calls Timothy had to make was to the company that provided the free stale pastries to the kitchen. "I think their feelings were hurt by the rejection, but I just didn't want to serve bad food that a lot of our population had become addicted to." Second, he set up accounts with the closest Whole Foods, in Austin, Texas, and a local organic food store in Louisville, Rainbow Blossom, so he could get their excess produce twice a week (produce that would otherwise end up in a compost heap or land fill). This strategy works for non-profits -- profit-making organizations can switch food delivery services from processed purveyors to fresh food wholesalers.

Educate the kitchen staff. If a kitchen is moving from processed and pre-packaged foods to fresh prep, the staff (who often have little to no background in cooking) has to be reeducated. "Learning to use a knife properly is the first order of business," says Timothy, who sees cutting, chopping and slicing as an active, living meditation. After that, developing the palate so cooks can accurately assess seasoning levels as they prepare dishes is crucial. And of course, knowing how to boil water and salt it for pasta, make stock from scratch, and create simple white, red and brown sauces are basic culinary musts.

Store and use food properly. One of the major arguments institutions make in terms of serving fresh food is shelf life. Frozen and canned foods last longer than fresh and are more easily stored. "I don't object to flash frozen food -- it serves a purpose -- but it can easily be combined with fresh choices," he says. Timothy has proven that with proper meal planning combined with the right cold storage, fresh produce can be used and replenished regularly with minimal waste and spoilage.

Plan ahead but be flexible. One way to maintain food quality and minimize waste is the old-fashioned "use what you have" philosophy. The trick to planning when using fresh food involves having a rotation of recipes that can easily be adapted to whatever is on hand. Many institutions don't want to go to the trouble, but once you put the time in to develop a repertoire, it's easy to improvise. "If we score 100 pounds of sweet potatoes, we'll use them in as many ways possible -- cake, pie, soup, stew -- you name it. Yes, it takes more thought in the beginning as opposed to just grabbing stuff in cans and bags, but it doesn't take long to get into a rhythm," says Timothy.

Quality food gave Center of Hope students and clients a sensory satisfaction and developed their palate; it also gave them dignity. Not only that, each one encountered a better way to live on so many levels that many of them were able to see that the cycle of perpetual homelessness could end with a good job in a busy kitchen; and that a nutritional hot meal made and served with love can improve a lost person's self esteem. I believe this model for teaching healthy eating and cooking, and its remarkable results, can be replicated in all sorts of institutions across the country and right in your own home.