Last week we met this season’s chefs. This week, the chefs hit the ground running, with a lighthearted Quickfire Challenge and a very serious Elimination Challenge …one that tackled an issue very close to my heart.
Recently Michelle Obama and White House Assistant Chef Sam Kass hosted almost 1,000 chefs on the South lawn of the White House to talk about how chefs can make a difference on the issue of school nutrition. I took Mrs. Obama’s words to heart, which is why I’m devoting today’s blog to the subject.
As I mentioned in tonight’s episode, my mother ran a school lunch program for nearly 20 years. My brothers and I urged her to retire long before she actually agreed to. When I pressed her about it, she said that for a great many of the kids at her school, the food she planned and prepared was the only food they’d eat all day. She wanted to ensure that they had at least one good meal, and she was loathe to step away and entrust their well-being to someone else.
So when my wife, Lori Silverbush, teamed up with fellow filmmaker Kristi Jacobson to direct and produce a film on hunger in America, I was more than glad to sign on as Executive Producer. The film asks why a nation wealthy enough to provide healthy and affordable food for all of its people has a massive problem with food insecurity. A core premise of the film is that hunger in the U.S. is fixable … and a key means to accomplishing this task is the provision of universal free lunch to all of our school children.
Currently, there are over 45 million Americans who are food insecure. Almost 17 million of them are children. That’s 17 million hungry children who cannot focus on their teachers and tasks in the classroom, and who are at risk of developing behavior challenges. Quite apart from how distracting the sensation of hunger can be, studies have proven that there is a direct link between proper nutrition and brain development. When the brain isn’t fed while our children are young, it sets off a chain-reaction of lifelong and society-wide issues.
Furthermore, our nation’s epidemic of obesity is not always due to lifestyle choices, but to lack of access or good options. Our First Lady’s campaign against obesity is, in fact, a campaign against an aspect of poverty. When families run low on cash or food stamps run out (which they do because the programs are underfunded), parents turn out of necessity to the cheapest food to feed their children, which is usually fast food or empty calories like ramen noodles. So not only are their children’s brains not fed what they need for proper development, but their children’s bodies are being primed for obesity, and for such dire health issues as diabetes and heart disease in the future. (This problem is compounded by the fact that so many schools have had to cut their physical education programs due to budgetary concerns.) The ripple effect of poor nutrition in the early years is staggering, not just for each child but for society as a whole: Some experts estimate that hunger and food insecurity costs our economy over $120 billion a year in health care costs, lost wages, and productivity, etc. Add to that the costs of health care incurred over a lifetime due to poor childhood nutrition that I just mentioned and you have an idea just how vital this issue is for all of us.