Love and Service: How Chefs Can Improve the Food System

As a soldier, Roshara Sanders would purposely break the rules. In the US Army, that disobedience earned her a “punishment” she preferred to her normal duty: kitchen detail. For her, cooking was an act of service to her fellow soldiers: “When you come back from a mission, all you can think of is having a meal.”

At SXSW, the Refresh Working Group hosted Chef Sanders on a panel, “Innovative Chefs: Cooking-Up a Better Food Future,” where she was joined by RWG members Chef Michel Nischan (Wholesome Wave) and Chef Anthony Myint (The Perennial Farming Initiative). Moderated by Addie Broyles, food writer for the Austin-American Statesman, it was an energetic, enlightening conversation, informed by the same love of food and service that drove Sanders into an army kitchen before she became a James Beard Award-winning chef.

Healthy Meals

Chef Mischal Nischan discussed how and why he has spent his professional life thinking about the role food can play in helping families become healthier. His journey began when his five-year-old son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, and continues with his work at Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit he started 12 years ago dedicated to increasing access to healthy food. By working to help people on SNAP increase their budget for fresh produce, he wants to make sure families can overcome one of the most pervasive obstacles to healthy eating: affordability. Because he realizes that “when you run out of SNAP in the middle of the month and you have $2 to spend on four people for dinner, and a head of broccoli is $2, broccoli is not going on the table.”

Rich Soil

At his former restaurant The Perennial, Chef Anthony Myint worked to marry delicious food with principles of sustainability. His new venture, The Perennial Farming Initiative is helping to develop accessible language to better communicate these issues: “We need the conversation to not involve a lot of jargon.” Instead, Myint proposes using a simple measure, “soil organic matter,” to convey the quality of the soil a crop is grown in. Focusing on that metric combines Myint’s environmental concerns with his culinary ones, because farms that grow food in rich soil produce the best crops while also practicing the most sustainable form of agriculture.

Family Gardens

Far from army kitchens, Chef Roshara Sanders now sees her role as both a teacher and an advocate for healthy food. Working with Habitat for Humanity, Sanders is hoping to that building family gardens will become part of new Habitat developments, both as a way for families to help feed themselves and as a vehicle to educate people about healthier food choices. She takes her role as an advocate for nutritious food very seriously. Where people reject vegetables as insufficiently tasty, she sees an exciting challenge for a good food advocates: “It’s my job to be creative. It’s my job to change your mind about what’s on the plate.”

Looking at the work chefs like Sanders, Nischan, Myint, and others have done in teaching and developing recipes, moderator Addie Broyles observed, “If you’ve been eating processed, prepared foods all your life, and you have no idea what to do with broccoli, the Internet can show you.” For example, you can find cooking videos online from these amazing chef panelists, or follow Wholesome Wave Georgia on Twitter for an impressive array of affordable, nutritious recipes.

With an insider look at the food system, each of these chefs is working to put consumers in a position to take action, both large and small, to improve the way they eat. Knowledgeable and empowered, we can all make food choices that enrich both ourselves and the planet.

To find out more about Chef Michel Nischan, SNAP, and how technology can help close the food gap, read our report, Refresh Food + Tech: From Soil to Supper.

Ben Thelen
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