Change Is Past Due

Helping to restore children's healthy relationship with food.

You're probably familiar with movies like Supersize Me, Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. that educate the general public about our relationship with food. While each movie has a different focus, all three prove that the individual decisions we make about the food we consume affects society at large.

As a whole, Americans have a problem maintaining a healthy weight. Too often we witness the extremities of people who are either too thin or obese. We seem to want to be healthy, but we act in unhealthy ways. Portions have quadrupled over the years: What used to be adult sizes in items like soft drinks and fries are now considered kid sizes. Physical activity has declined: We are driving more, and walking less. For some children, activities like having recess and enjoying physical play have been replaced by playing video games, surfing the Web and watching TV. And because of our hectic lifestyles, we have grown to rely on take-out food much more than we should and we are cooking at home much less than in years past. A balance must be reached; change is past due.

The question is where should we begin? The answer is with our children. Today, nearly one in three children is overweight or obese. And it is said that the current generation will have a shorter life span than today's adults. Obviously, this is an epidemic that we as a nation must work together to eradicate. How can you become involved? The Let's Move! campaign is a great start.

First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign aims to reverse the aforementioned grim statistics. The initiative aspires to "end childhood obesity by 2015." The core principle of the initiative is to educate children on how to find a healthy balance. Let's Move! strives to have children eat wholesome meals throughout the day— while in school and at home. It also encourages kids to engage in sports and physical activity.

On June 4, 2010, Obama invited nearly 700 chefs nationwide to be a part of the Let's Move! initiative. She called on the chefs to volunteer their time and skills within schools and work closely with staff, students, parents and community organizations to improve our children's health. I was honored to be among the chefs invited to the White House South Lawn to listen to Obama's inspirational speech regarding the Let's Move! program. Aaron McCargo, Anne Burrell, Bill Telepan, Cat Cora, Daniel Boulud, Lydia Bastianich, Tom Colicchio and countless other prominent chefs united with the purpose of claiming this mission as their own.

A few days later, I began contacting schools to implement the campaign. After introducing myself to administrators and students at the elementary school P.S. 11, the William T. Harris School, in New York City, it was obvious we were a perfect match. P.S. 11 participates in community supported agriculture (CSA). Every Wednesday, Stoneledge Farm, a certified organic farm in Greene County, New York, provides the school with fresh, seasonal and local crops that the children sell at their very own farmer's market. This intends to familiarize the children with natural ingredients.

This is where I come in. Each week I receive a list of the crops expected for delivery and create recipes based on the wholesome ingredients. I then teach the students how to prepare the recipes during hands-on cooking classes.

My first week at P.S. 11, we received Chinese Napa cabbage, rat tail radishes and scallions. Hence, Napa Cole Slaw was created. The second week, we received summer savoy, summer squash, leeks, Italian-style eggplant, and white and yellow peaches. We made Vegetable Medley Crostinis and Peaches and Cream for dessert. The children worked collectively in cutting the vegetables, rubbing toasted baguettes with garlic and assembling the crostinis. They eagerly took turns whipping heavy cream flavored with a touch of sugar and a bit of vanilla extract to spoon over the grilled peaches. With every class, the children show an increased interest in cooking, chopping, seasoning and mixing— making my time here easy, fun and extremely rewarding.

While my classes are set to run through the fall, I have every intention of building my relationship with P.S. 11. Moreover, my experience has inspired me to work with other local public schools. I must say, the Let's Move! project has helped make me a better chef. I am constantly exposed to new things, including ingredients, children, environments and obstacles. No two days are alike. Also, I receive great fulfillment. I get to witness children feeling excited to cook, try new dishes and offer opinions, without uttering words like "yuck" and "disgusting." Lastly, I have the honor of knowing I've impacted children's lives by teaching them to respect food, encouraging them to cook healthy and delicious meals and educating them about the effects of these choices. I may only be helping one child at a time. But by working together, we could finally live in a nation that shares a healthy and balanced relationship with food.