By Stacey Dash, Vice President, Marketing, Communications and Sustainability.
Can you really make a beet taste as good as bacon? Is free-range (insert protein) truly better for the environment? How do we help with the environmental problems, give people what they want to eat, and not assume the role of the “food police”? At the Menus of Change conference, hosted by The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard’s School of Public Health and held in Hyde Park, N.Y., the agenda focused on the long-term, practical vision of integrating optimal nutrition and public health, environmental stewardship and restoration, and social responsibility within the foodservice industry and the culinary profession. Three dominant themes surfaced:
1. Trust and Transparency – People are asking more questions about their food; and chefs, restaurants and foodservice institutions are trying to provide better answers. Through this ongoing conversation, additional transparency and trust is gained. A range of approaches were presented – from full-disclosure solutions that convey detailed nutritional information, all allergens, and even some local sourcing tags, to a more focused approach where restaurants would highlight one element, such as locally-sourced items or a separate gluten-free menu. Transparency isn’t an all-or-nothing approach. Different approaches can work. The guidance seemed to be “Stand for something, exert effort to try to make it better and tell your story to your customers.”
2. Plant-forward – This is the idea of creating menus and recipes that are comprised of more plants vs. animal proteins, which are traditionally the cornerstone in most American menus. It reminded me of Michael Pollen’s often quoted guidance, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Many have heard the challenges in the beef industry it takes 35 calories of feed to produce one consumed calorie of beef, or 427 gallons of water to produce a quarter-pound beef patty. The Protein Flip highlighted the previous statistics and takes on the daunting task of trying to educate, illustrate and transform thinking around protein in our diets.
3. Deliciousness – One of my favorite quotes from the conference was, “If it’s not delicious, it’s not a solution.” These problems are big and complex, but a basic hurdle that must be overcome is that the food must taste good. People aren’t willing to change behaviors for something that isn’t equally as tasty as what they are eating today. One case study focused on Brigaid, a group started by a former Nobu head-chef that puts chefs in elementary schools to provide scratch-cooking and healthier menus at an early age. This was an inspiring example of a new concept to make school food fresh, healthy and delicious. Another tool highlighted at the event is the Principles of Healthy Sustainable Menus. This guide provides simple ideas for creating any kind of menu – whether used by a restaurant or even for use in your own cooking.
It’s uncomfortable not knowing all the answers or even a pathway forward, but an important step is raising the consciousness about some of these food problems and trends. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about this area and hope others find the resources above helpful in this ongoing conversation.