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Food Day at Yale

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Saturday, October 24th is Food Day, and we will be celebrating it at the very heart of the Yale University campus, on the beautiful expanse in front of Sterling Library. Much as we need rain in this part of the country, please join me in hoping it doesn't come that day. We have a canopy, just in case.

Food Day is an annual event, established several years ago by Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. I am honored to be listed, along with many prominent champions of public health, planetary stewardship, and great food, as a member of the Food Day Advisory Board.

That there is a "Food Day" makes just about as much sense, in all the same ways, as Mother's Day, or Father's Day. Those of us who are indebted to our parents -- and that's all of us in at least one way, and nearly all of us in a host of others -- have cause to acknowledge that debt and the attendant gratitude every day. But of course, life happens, and in the course of the daily routine, we neglect a lot that matters. An annual day devoted to each parent is an invitation to pause, reflect, and express what we overlook all too often.

Food Day is the same. We could argue that every day should be Food Day, since for those of us not subject to true dietary deprivation, food figures importantly in our daily routine. Perhaps its absence does, even more so, for the unfortunately hungry. But as Brian Wansink pointed out in his book, Mindless Eating, well-chewed food for thought about all the implications of our dietary choices is rather less prevalent.

The intent of Food Day, then, is to highlight the importance of food to health, to the planet and to our fellow species. It is intended to showcase what is good in the world of both personal action and public policy, and to point a spotlight at what is bad, such as the persistence of large-scale subsidies more in the interests of food suppliers, than of we the people -- the food demanders. Food Day is an opportunity to demand better.

On a routine basis, we overlook the profound importance of food. It is nothing less than the sole source of construction material for the growing body of a child. Recognized as such, can any loving parent or grandparent truly sanction the prominent place in our culture of "junk food" as if somehow innocent? Can we really wring our hands about epidemic type 2 diabetes in kids, but keep on marketing multicolored marshmallows as part of a complete breakfast?

Food, too, is the construction material for the countless millions of cells and molecules adults lose, and need to replace, every day. It is nothing less than the fuel that runs every function of the human machine.

Chosen badly, food is among the top three causes of premature death in modern society. And because that premature death comes as the culminating event of chronic disease, dubious food choices are not just taking years from life, they are taking life from years.

Chosen well, food can be the very opposite: one of the greatest sources of health and vitality. Chosen well, food can help prevent up to 80 percent of all chronic disease. If you think this is just a dull statistic, ask yourself if you love someone who has suffered heart disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes. If every day were Food Day for us all, the likelihood of you saying "yes" to that would be 80 percent lower. That's personal; and that's incredible.

Chosen well, food can even resolve the long-smoldering nature/nurture debate. Diet empowers us to nurture even nature, and refashion our medical destiny at the very level of our genes, altering their behavior. Food is the centerpiece of the diverse Blue Zone cultures around the world, where it contributes importantly to the enviable combination of unrivaled longevity, and vitality. The world's Blue Zone populations have DNA just like the rest of us, but far better dinners than most- and wind up with more years in life, and more life in years as a result.

Food also has major implications for the fate of the planet, with dietary pattern affecting water use, land use, climate, conservation, and biodiversity. In a fortuitous confluence for which we may all be grateful, the same basic dietary pattern of wholesome foods, mostly plants, in sensible combinations that underlies the best human health outcomes offers enormous environmental advantages as well.

And finally, of course, food should be a source of great delight. Among the legitimate contenders for "best diet" laurels are some of the world's favorite cuisines. In the hands of talented chefs, foods that are wonderfully good, and just as good for us, figure routinely in the very same recipes. We need not choose between good food and good health; we can enjoy both. We can love food that loves us, and for that matter the planet, back.

These are the themes we will be celebrating at Yale, having dubbed them the "four pillars" of food: health, taste, sustainability, and vitality. We will celebrate the potential for food, every day, to be delicious, nutritious, sustainable, and vitalizing. Joining in will be the University's culinary talent, notably Master Chef Ron DeSantis, director of culinary excellence at Yale. Yes, attendees will indeed have the opportunity to sample the products of Chef Ron's talents.

Also participating will be Chef Bun Lai, proprietor of the iconic Miya's Sushi restaurant, which sets standards not only in great cuisine, but in innovations related to sustainability. We will have the director of the Yale Sustainable Food Program, Mark Bomford; friends from HealthCorps; the founder of Cuisinicity, my wife, Catherine; and some of the nation's top dance talent, courtesy of Sean Flanagan, President of the U.S. Tournament of Dance. We also have a special guest, familiar to all Food Network fans, the wonderful Chef Candice Kumai.

At a time when private money is being leveraged to undermine the dietary guidance offered by the nation's top experts, and industry lobbying readily induces our Congress to abandon sustainability as if it doesn't matter whether or not there is food or water left for our children -- Food Day could not be more important or timely. At our Food Day event at Yale, we will dance with great dancers; enjoy the food of great cooks; and in general, have a great time. But underlying the revelry is, admittedly, some serious food for thought.

Every day ought to be Food Day. For now, though, we will settle for October 24th. If you are in the area, please join us then.


Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital