When I heard Michael Pollan (Omnivore's Dilemma) speak last October in Cleveland on National Food Day, he made an interesting statement...that a sea change in the agricultural system may be driven by an unlikely allie, the health care industry. What he was getting at was...medical insurance companies would eventually refuse to flip the bill for all the food related disease (diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc.) and force a change in how food is produced so it heals, not hurts.

That same month, The Nation had a feature article about our food economy. Michael was quoted as saying, "As soon as the health care industry begins to focus on the fact that the government is subsidizing precisely the sort of meal for which the industry (and the government) will have to pick up the long-term tab, eloquent advocates of food system reform will suddenly appear in the unlikeliest places—like the agriculture committees of Congress."

Now there is another way that the medical profession could shift our food system away from an emphasis on price and convenience to an emphasis on health and sustainability! Dr. Lenard Lesser of Palo Alto Medical Foundation and colleagues, Deborah Cohen, MD; and Robert Brook, MD,  just published an article in the Journal of American Medical Association entitled "Changing Eating Habits for the Medical Profession." The premise for the article was based on a recent recommendation by the Institute of Medicine which stated that health care professionals should act "as role models for their patients and provide leadership for obesity prevention efforts in their communities by advocating for institutional community, and state-level strategies that can improve physical activity and nutrition resources for their patients and their communities."

Dr. Lesser points out one small problem with this theory...physicians are often overweight themselves. He referenced a 2004 report by the Physicians Health Study that found 44% of physicians were overweight or obese. But if we get hospitals serving healthier foods, not only will it advocate for a more holistic approach to health care that is patient-centered vs.just treatment-centered, but physicians will find it easier to practice what they preach because the foods being served will focus on consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and away from processed foods high in bad fats in high-fructose corn syrup.

The article draws a parallel to the impact that the health care industry had in initiating the tobacco ban movement of the 1960's. It started with the surgeon generals report warning against the health dangers of smoking. That was the impetus for banning smoking in hospitals. Fast-forward to 2012 and smoking is banned in pretty much ever public place. Dr. Lesser suggests using a similar policy progression to "ignite a movement to improve the food environment."

This idea has merit and legs...Dr. Lesser and his colleagues suggest starting with meals at medical conferences which replace high caloric lunches with healthier options. From there, hospitals could require that food service only purchase foods which meet a certified healthy criteria. Hospitals represent a critical mass strong enough that vendors would need to respond to this high demand. That high demand by institutions would have a ripple effect and require Big Ag to respond as well.

Just as the tobacco movement gained traction by placing its roots in the health care industry, the food movement could do the same and before we know it, healthy food would be as ubiquitous as no-smoking signs!

One of my freelance contracts is managing the philanthropic program, Gardens to Hospitals. Dr. Lenard Lesser is largely responsible for its creation. In 2010, he published a report which found that only 7% of meals in California children hospitals were healthy. Gardens to Hospitals hopes to increase that percentage by helping hospitals install edible gardens. Not only will hospitals be leading by example but growing food which will help their patients lead healthier lives!

The Veg-heads Game: The blueberry, mushroom, cucumber, carrot and tomato
When talking to kids about fruits and veggies, you have to speak their language. Dressing up and  playing with silly props are always a good way to communicate a message but the activity is only as valuable as the impression it leaves on the child and the lessons they take home.

On Wednesday, July 11th...I traveled to Whole Foods Market in Folsom, CA to lead a kid's camp. The objective...teach kids about the nutritional value of their fruits and vegetables. If I went in spouting words like beta-carotene and antioxidants, I would have been met with blank stares. I needed something funny, hands-on, interactive and involved group participation.

The event was sponsored by Lisa's Organics and a promo event for their Gardens-to-Hospitals program. Lisa's Organics produces frozen, organic vegetables and their slogan is "Eat Your Veggies." Gardens-to-Hospitals' (G2H) parallel slogan is "Eat Your Colors!"

I start off asking the kids, "What are are your favorite colors to eat?" They quickly catch-on and start shouting out, "strawberries, snap peas, watermelon, pineapple, etc.." I explain that a colorful plate gives us a plateful of vitamins and minerals from different fruits and veggies.

I ask for five volunteers to represent the five color groups: red, yellow/orange, green, blue/purple and white/brown. Hands go up! I select the first five promising that everyone will get a turn to participate. I pull out some simple, homemade costumes...colored, felt tunics with matching trucker hats that have a corresponding vegetable for each color group. I slip the tunic over their head and place the hat on their head. Giggles break out! The kids look as silly as I hoped they would. The make-shift costumes get them using their imagination like they would when playing at home and absent a stylie blueberry, mushroom, cucumber, carrot or tomato costume.

The audience members (the other children) take turns pulling a FRESH fruit or vegetable from a basket. Holding the vegetable, they are asked to identify the color and place it in the basket in front of the appropriate child/vegetable. As the items get selected, I get ready with my props...

Beets get pulled from the basket and is determined to be purplish. I say, "beets have magnesium which is good for muscles." I give the blue/purple child, water wings to represent BIG muscles. Laughter erupts!

A carrot gets selected! I follow-up, "carrots have stuff to keep our eyes healthy," and I give the yellow/orange kiddo some over-sized glasses.

Next, snap peas :) I tell the children, "Green veggies have fiber. Fiber keeps things moving through our bodies so stuff doesn't get stuck," and I hand the child a plunger.

Mushrooms get chosen! "Mushrooms have things to help clean our system and flush out the bad toxins. It's like an internal toilet brush." The child smirks as handed a toilet brush to hold.

The tomato child gets a tomato placed in their basket. I explain, "tomatoes have stuff to fight cancer. It's like having boxing gloves to ward off disease." The children laugh as oven mitts get slipped on the tomato kid.

By the end, the human fruits & veggies are holding and wearing a variety of props sometimes struggling to keep it all in balance. I ask the audience, "As you can see, we need all these colors to gives us what we need to stay healthy. You just can't eat the same thing everyday and hope to get everything you need to grow big and strong."

I ask, "How can we eat more fruits and veggies?" We talk about making fruit smoothies and juices. We have fun brainstorming the different pizzas, soups, and sandwiches we could make to get as many colors as we need each day. I encourage the kids to get their parents to take them to a farmers' market, perhaps start a garden, find some recipes they can make and basically get more involved in the foods they are being fed so they can have more fun.

One of Five "Eat Your Color" fridge magnets
Our first Gardens to Hospitals event is about to kick-off next week in Jackson, CA. Gardens to Hospitals (G2H) is a project of Lisa’s Organics - an organic, frozen vegetable producer based in Lake Tahoe, CA. In short, G2H partners school gardens with hospitals to raise awareness for healthy meal programs and install edible gardens at the hospital. In Jackson, students from local Argonaut High School will lead a food lesson at Sutter Amador Hospital for area children ages 4-7 years old. The lesson plays off a campaign that ran in 2011 for National Nutrition Month called “Eat Your Colors!” Unfortunately, the brilliant campaign only ran for that one month and was archived. Ironically, the campaign is very similar to Lisa’s Organics brand slogan, “Eat Your Veggies.”

I immediately saw the parallel and began to brainstorm! The result…adorable, fridge magnets as shown in the example to the left. There are five in all. One for each of the following colors: red, green, purple, white/brown and yellow/orange. Each child that attends the G2H event will receive a packet of five magnets. After the lesson, the kids will get a chance to plant some seeds and starters in raised beds which will reside on the hospital's cafeteria patio. The high school students will remind the children about the different colors of each veggie being planted as well as the color of the veggies they will be sampling that day from local, organic farms. The kids will learn their food colors, plant the seed and taste its flavor. At home, they will play with their magnets and hopefully grab one off the fridge and say something like, “Mom, I want purple veggies for dinner!”

Speaking of "colors." The growing dome has been exploding with color the last couple weeks. We are into our 6th week of harvests donating 10-12lbs of assorted greens to our local hunger relief agency, Project Mana. But last week, we started adding radishes and this week beets and carrots. One of my favorite food films, Fridays at the Farm, described the sensation of harvesting radishes to "pulling teeth from the mouth of God!" I love that visual. Today, I got the same satisfaction from harvesting the carrots. With radishes and beets, you can pretty much tell how big the root is before you pull it out of the ground. Carrots on the other hand are a big surprise. They don't reveal their size till plucked. You grab the base of the stem and start pulling. I don't know why but I was half expecting 1-2" puny, roots but on average, they were more like 6-7" long. I sounded like I was watching fireworks instead of harvesting vegetables as exclamations erupted from my mouth, "Ooooh, Wow!"  With each pull I was more and more elated as these striking orange sticks continued to come out of the ground. I felt a little like a magician pulling a scarf out of their sleeve...i just kept pulling and pulling. I love farming!

Check out the video below for a virtual tour of the dome and exciting times on harvest day!

Bountiful harvest...radishes, carrots and beets!
I'm brushing up on my environmental education for the Gardens-to-Hospitals program that I'm building for Lisa's Organics. It's a program where school gardens partner with hospitals on collaborative projects which galvanize both school and hospital to provide healthy meal programs. Students and children at the hospital will come together for an interactive growing activity or art project. The projects need to be meaningful and impactful.

So I went to straight to the source, The Center for Ecoliteracy, in Berkeley, CA. I ordered one of their books, "Ecological Literacy," in order to immerse myself in the language and produce thought-provoking and policy changing events. The book is a compilation of essays and visionary thought from today's foremost authorities on progressive education.

David Orr of Oberlin College laid the groundwork, "all education is environmental education." And founder for the Center, Fritjof Capra, explained that further to mean, "Education for sustainable living fosters both an intellectual understanding of ecology and emotional bonds with nature that make it more likely that our children will grow into responsible citizens who truly care about sustaining life, and develop a passion for applying their ecological understanding to the fundamental redesign of our technologies and social institutions so as to bridge the current gap between human design and the ecologically sustainable systems of nature."

Amen Fritjof! It's all about building connections! And school gardens reconnect kids to the fundamentals of food. Systems-based learning helps young people see the connectivity of relationships in their environment and surrounding ecosystems. Another contributor, Maurice Holt, points to the essential role that school gardens play in "understanding, not just memorizing, ecological principles."

Lisa’s Organics wants to foster these types of educational opportunities. Gardens-to-Hospitals will help young people understand how food unites us culturally and socially enabling them to make a deeper connection to where their food comes from and the impact that food availability has on their whole community not just in their own lunchroom.

Lisa's Organics' slogan
I've been back in Tahoe two months now. In the absence of snow, I've been hard at work shaping what will hopefully be a bountiful career in food activism. It is only the beginning but I can feel the momentum gaining.

First up is a philanthropic campaign for Lisa's Organics. Lisa's is based in Lake Tahoe and are producers of organic, frozen vegetables. They are taking their "Eat Your Veggies" slogan and helping schools and hospitals improve their meal programs.

School gardens are sprouting up all over the country,  lunch programs are becoming healthier and more hospitals are sourcing sustainably grown food. Lisa's Organics' "Gardens to Hospitals," hopes to keep that momentum going.
The program’s goal is to bring awareness to the role of nutritious food in raising and nurturing healthy children. The children themselves will help lead the effort advocating for healthier meals both in their schools and in hospitals. Students with a school garden will grow food for children in a hospital. They will come together in a food and information sharing event at the hospital snacking on the food grown. Together, all the kids will gain a better connection to their food and healthy eating habits. In the process, the food buyers at both the school and the hospital will be forced to look into the eyes of the children they are feeding and answer to the choices they are making. 

Institutional food, like at schools and hospitals, represents a significant percentage of the food consumed in the United States. Harnessing the collective buying power of institutions to  purchase more nutritious and ecologically grown food could dramatically alter the US food economy. Their critical mass could provide the organic market the weight necessary to tip the scales away from conventional agriculture.

The grow dome at what hopes to be Truckee's community farm
Next up, is a farming project in Tahoe. Yes, Tahoe! I will be helping to launch a program to explore mountain farming techniques in a 1000 sq. ft grow dome (geodesic greenhouse). The practices utilized are those perfected by the 4-season, hoop-house, guru, Eliot Coleman. This is my first step in helping my high-elevation community achieve food security. If successful, more grow domes will be built and perhaps even a grants program developed to help citizens acquire smaller, 350 sq. ft. domes for their backyards. My goal...20% of Tahoe using grow domes by 2020.

The grow dome hopes to be an extension of the community garden in Truckee Regional Park. In a demonstration setting, people can get acquainted with agriculture and learn about the growing methods used at the dome. The grow dome(s) would be the community farm growing food not only for schools, hospitals and a CSA program but more importantly the local hunger relief program, Project Mana. The grow dome and the possibility of feeding Tahoe with food grown on its own soil, is the vision and inspiration of local entrepreneurs, Bill and Kevin Kelly.