Long Beach Fresh Sparks the Conversation About Bringing Healthier Food to City's Institutions

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Photos by Asia Morris.

Long Beach Fresh, in collaboration with the Office of Congressman Alan Lowenthal, invited representatives from health and childcare institutions in the greater Long Beach area to engage and interact with each other's ideas and proven methods for healthy food innovation on Wednesday afternoon.

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DSC 0436Attendees congregated at The Growing Experience Urban Farm in Long Beach over a farm-to-table lunch prepared by Chef Paul Buchanan of Primal Alchemy Catering and broke bread over the growing need and demand to incorporate sustainable and nutritious foods into school and hospital food programs, institutions where most attending agreed would have the most influence in providing larger communities with an effective education on how to eat more healthfully.

The event, entitled The Good Food is Good Health Luncheon, was spurred by Long Beach Fresh Project Co-Coordinator Ryan Smolar, who explained that the idea originated at last year's National Health Week Conference when he realized there were plenty of hospitals committed and interested in good food, but many of them didn't know that Long Beach had any farms.

DSC 0454"They probably didn't have much exposure to how great the people are in the food movement and the innovation they're bringing to not just the table but to systems and to the scale that's necessary, so this was a great opportunity to showcase both sides to each other in a casual comfortable way and get the conversation kicked off," Smolar told the Post.

Those listening to the panel included 30 executives, food services directors, wellness coordinators from care institutions including Kaiser Permanente, Molina Healthcare, Long Beach Bureau of Community Health, The Children’s Clinic, Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital, Century Villages at Cabrillo, Office of Councilmember Al Austin, and The California Endowment among others, including smaller entities such as Little Owl Preschool and The Village Cookie Shoppe.

DSC 0459Patti Oliver, director of Nutrition Services for UCLA Medical Center, described the transformation of their trans fat, fried food-heavy program to a trans fat, fried food-less sustainable program serving both the Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital and the Santa Monica UCLA Hospital, a total of about 850 beds. Meatless Mondays, less expensive salad bars and more expensive sodas, display cooking, composting and educational labeling were just a few of the tricks of the growing trade Oliver helped to implement.

Audra Wilford, Chief Hope Officer and co-founder of the Maxlove Project, a grassroots organization dedicated to helping childhood cancer families beat the odds, had her personal journey to share of when her then-four-year-old son, Max, was diagnosed with brain cancer. It was then that, despite her extensive culinary background, she truly came to understand the power of food.

DSC 0475"We gave him loads of whole, nutrient-dense foods as close to the vine as we could get them," Wilford said. Their actions were inspired by the lack of these items on the hospital's menu.

She and her husband dove into the research necessary to empower their son's body to start the fight against his tumor, which surgeons were not able to entirely remove. From making their own broth, shakes and meals, the two created a meal plan that has helped their son thrive and his tumor shrink. So why not empower others to do the same? Hence the birth of the Maxlove Project.

"I believe there are two major points of intervention in our communities, our schools and our hospitals, and I would just love to see a teaching kitchen in every pediatric hospital in this nation, a place with a community table where we could sit down with our doctors and nurses and we can be a part of this process together, this process of healing," she said. "And a teaching kitchen in every school in this nation supported by a farm and a garden, each and every one of them."

To that end, Wilford said she believes that "together we can change the odds because they're pretty stacked against us and our kids these days."

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President of LA Kitchen, Robert Egger spoke on behalf of the organization that believes "neither food nor people should go to waste" and focuses on reclaiming healthy food that would otherwise be discarded, in addition to training employees who would otherwise be out of a job.

He spoke extensively on the history of food and how an item as simple as a bag of frozen peas was viewed as a liberation for the trapped housewife, saving her time and energy and enabling her to be more productive with her own wants and needs. Now it's a matter of reigning in a food system-gone-awry.

DSC 0473Civic Engagement Advocate for Molina Healthcare Misi Tagaloa attended the event without knowing what to expect and told the Post he "really got more than he bargained for."

During a question and answer session following the panel, Wilford answered Tagaloa's question on how healthcare institutions and healthplans can fit into this matrix for healthy eating. Having doctors be able to prescribe certain foods and having healthplans able to pay for good food was her idea.

"I mean, that's amazing," he said. "Just like you prescribe aspirin or an antibiotic you can provide food. I'm going to take that home with me and surely tell the people in the 'Ivory Tower' to take a closer look at that."

Paul Barry, representing the Village Cookie Shoppe, an employer of homeless adults and young people with disabilities owned and operated by the nonprofit Mental Health America, said that what he learned from the luncheon is that the narrative needs to change.

DSC 0438"The narrative that good food is too expensive and good food is not appealing and good food is not available is a narrative that if you repeat it often enough, becomes true," he said. "And what we've gotta do is start to realize that that narrative's got to change, because it's just not true anymore. In fact, fast food, unhealthy food, is incredibly expensive when you do the math."

Buchanan, who in a recent Facebook post showed how he created a healthy breakfast for under $5 using Farmers Market-sourced ingredients, told attendees that there is no excuse not to go to a Farmers Market, that one is held every day in Long Beach except on Mondays.

The power and energy of good food certainly brought a host of great minds together to spark a conversation that promises to yield a wide array of nutrient-packed results. It was reassuring to know that local attendees were able to learn about their local food assets and ways they can incorporate good food into their own respective institutional practices in Long Beach, and even at home.

Click here for more information about Long Beach Fresh and here to learn more about the Growing Experience Urban Farm. 

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