As the obesity issue in America continues to (er-) grow, people are starting to realize that the answer cannot be found in limiting options or forcing compliance to dietary guidelines but most instead come from the inside out. Where better to begin, then, than in schools?
Such is the philosophy of award-winning food writer and savvy businesswoman Louisa Kasdon, founder of Let’s Talk About Food (www.letstalkaboutfood.com).
With her MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a background that includes work in the artistic, financial and marketing sectors, as well as in award-winning restaurants, the proud BPS alum combines a love of food with a strong business sense and also a sense of morality that has encouraged her to take her broad background and focus it on this latest venture.
Supported by the EOS Foundation (which is dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty by investing in initiatives that support children), as well as by students, parents, and other stakeholders, Kasdon has put together a statewide task force of School Nutrition Directors with offices in Boston and other large urban centers across the Commonwealth. Proposed by Kasdon and her culinary colleague Jody Adams (award-winning chef of Rialto in Cambridge and Trade in Boston) in 2012, the new team will help establish appropriate plans for regional commissaries that serve students and schools. As many schools only have the capacity to reheat and serve food, the new commissaries will allow and encourage the use of fresher, more nutritious foods and more creative cooking processes and will also make it possible to forego the use of out-of-region foods and foods that have been overly processed. At the same time, these new in-state centers will also create local jobs and even offer opportunities to the students themselves.
“Boston Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services and Let’s Talk About Food (LTAF) have been community partners for the past few years,” explains Boston’s Deputy Director of Food and Nutrition Services Deborah Ventricelli, noting that Kasdon is a participant in the Boston Food Advisory Council and also provided input for the Food and Nutrition Services Department Strategic Plan. “It is beneficial to Food and Nutrition Services and to LTAF to learn from each other about overlapping activities, share expertise, and determine ongoing ways to collaborate.”
According to Boston parent Steph Shapiro Berkson (who is also an adjunct professor the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health), the majority of children in the Boston Public Schools qualify for free and reduced lunch and over 3,000 of them are homeless. “It is well known,” she points out, “that over 99% of children attend schools. As such, schools are an ideal place to model healthy eating and provide access to healthy food.”
Berkson credits Kasdon and LTAF with heightening awareness among key stakeholders, of “the necessity of feeding our children in Boston well” and of confirming that, despite some skeptics, “feeding children the fresh food that they deserve is attainable. “
When asked what first interested her in food and nutrition, Kasdon admits that she was born to “the only Jewish family in the universe that wasn’t into food,” but also recalls seeing Julia Child on television and getting “hooked” on cooking.
“By the time I was in college my then boyfriend, now husband, was part of a group of friends who were building and opening a rustic French restaurant in Cambridge,” she recalls, citing the first of her many professional forays into the world of food.
Though she had long had an interest in food, Kasdon also admits to not being so aware of what went into her daily meals and those of her customers.
“Once I came into the kitchen and the chef/owner was pouring all sorts of things in a five-gallon glass jug…. He explained that he was making salad dressing,” she recalls. “I was floored. I didn’t know you could make salad dressing. I thought it was born in little wishbone-shaped jars!”
As many of today’s students may have similar perspectives on food, Kasdon hopes to be able to educate them and, in so doping to inspire them to learn more about what they eat and what they can do to help others eat better as well.
“The restaurant business is hard work,” she says, recalling her many
failed” attempts at being an owner.
From failure, however, came later success and also many important lessons.
“I wanted to make sure people understood and respected how hard it is for chefs and owners to succeed in business,” Kasdon explains. “So I started writing about the business.”
Since then, Kasdon has written internationally about food and the food industry. Currently, she hosts an annual Let’s Talk About Food Festival in Copley Square, as well as Friday lunch-time talks at the Boston Public Market, many of which have to do with the same ideas she is hoping to bring to the local school community as well.
Speaking of school, Kasdon expresses great gratitude for the teachers who helped her garner the skills and curiosities that have led her to her deliciously explored life.
“I think that school…gave me the ability to be disciplined and focused, be analytic, and also to think systemically,” she says. “I think I got very good at imagining what could change in the world and to think through the tasks required to make those changes, step-by-step, aware of the details yet keeping the bigger vision in play. And to imagine what things could looks like if we were successful. ”
Though “the food things came much later,” Kasdon credits her academic preparation with allowing her to eventually succeed and also with inspiring her to effectively share her ideas with others.
From farm to compost, Kasdon examines the entire realm of the food world and the food business, looking for new and better ways to connect people to the information and products they need to live better, more fulfilled lives. Though the path from farm to table may not be that simple, Kasdon suggests that “it all matters.”
“It matters who makes our food, where it is grown, how we buy it, how we cook it,” she says. “I think that, for the past four or five decades, we just accepted food as it came to us. We lost the thread of the relationship between food and family and the planet we live on.”
Though we may have fallen off track as a culture, Kasdon is confident that, with education and honesty, “we can get it back!” In fact, she says, that is what prompted her to create LTAF in 2010.
“I convinced the Museum of Science…that a regular set of presentations…about food had a place at the museum,” Kasdon recalls. “I decided to call it Let’s Talk About Food because it was the broadest, most inviting name I could come up with.”
Since then, she observes, the program has “become very successful as a way to bring people in to the conversation about food.” And while her passion is surely behind the success, Kasdon also credits partners like Adams, as well as organizations like Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) and Boston Public Schools (BPS).
“We believe that all youth deserve access to high quality delicious food,” says Boston Superintendent Dr. Tommy Chang, noting how quality food and healthy eating habits impact all people throughout their lifetimes and can make a significant difference in academic and overall performance. Chang is also keen to mention how he is spearheading a national search to bring a strategic and innovative director to lead the Food Services Department at BPS.
“This work is not just about food,” Dr. Chang observes, “but about the entire food and learning experience for youth in Boston Public Schools.”
As for the partnership between LTAF and GBFB, GBFB Public and Government Relations Coordinator Catherine Drennan sees it as a “mutually beneficial co-branding relationship” in which LTAF can make use of the Food Bank’s 501 c(3) status and the Food Bank can collaborate and develop content for LTAF..
“It’s a new partnership that we are navigating,” Drennan notes, “but it has been a great opportunity for GBFB to position themselves as thought leaders in the food community and expose us to new audiences, as well as expose Louisa to new content as she develops her program.”