New CIA conference focuses on child obesity

May 17—Childhood obesity was the focus of the Culinary Institute of America’s new conference, Healthy Flavors, Healthy Kids. The national invitational leadership summit, which was held last week at the CIA’s San Antonio campus, invited more than 100 foodservice directors, presenters and industry partners to discuss the growing problem of childhood obesity. The event was held in collaboration with the National Restaurant Association.

The three-day summit featured culinary demonstrations and presentations from school nutrition directors, nutrition researchers, chefs and representatives from the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

Tim Ryan, president of the Culinary Institute of America, said the CIA could leverage its wide reach and influence to start a dialogue about childhood obesity. “There has been so much discussion about childhood obesity and school lunch programs,” Ryan said. “We have many alumni who are engaged in [child nutrition programs]. Jorge Collazo in New York and Ann Cooper in Boulder are both alums. We said this is probably a time to convene a session, as a first in a series, to have people who are probably going to have different opinions to try to hash through these issues.

“Anybody who thinks that nutrition is a fixed science is mistaken,” Ryan added. “I think it’s a moving target and it’s helpful when the CIA can play that role of convener and translator to bring people together to say, ‘Look, we all want to get to the same place. We may have different opinions right now about how to do it, so where can we agree and how can we really strategize toward healthier kids?’ We’re an honest broker of these things. So sometimes folks who don’t necessarily agree and maybe battle in public, if the CIA calls them together they might say, ‘Let’s try to work this out and see through this.’ We have a better shot than almost anybody to make that happen.”

Highlights of the summit included presentations from Janey Thornton, deputy undersecretary, Food Nutrition & Consumer Services USDA, and Sam Kass, assistant White House chef and Food Initiative coordinator for the White House.

Thornton updated attendees on the status of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. She said more than 130,000 comments were received about the bill, adding that “nothing is set in stone at this time. We are going to come up with a general enough standard, something that is doable, keeping in mind what’s best for kids. We can legislate what goes on the plate, but we can’t legislate what goes in the body. Our nation’s schools are the place where change needs to begin. We need to teach students not just how to eat healthy but why.”

Thornton said the final ruling on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will be released in late fall or early winter, with implementation beginning the 2012-2013 school year.

Kass echoed many of the presenters at the summit, saying that chefs have tremendous “star power” and can leverage that to get children to make healthier eating habits. “I think a lot of times chefs walk into schools and don’t understand how much [foodservice directors] do with so little,” Kass said.

Kass added that it took 40 years for the obesity epidemic to reach the level it is at now, but he added that the industry can’t afford to take 40 years to reverse the trend. “It will take time [to make a change], but it’s with a sense of urgency,” he said. “It will take time to change the palate.”

Kass also said a new food icon will be released to help people understand the dietary guidelines more easily. Kass said the icon, which will be released in late spring, will be “simple, a way to help people make easy decisions.” Kass couldn’t comment on additional details of the logo.

Other presentations at the summit included cooking demonstrations from chefs such as Rick Bayless, chef/owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago, and Suvir Saran, executive chef/owner of Devi and American Masala in New York. Salad bars and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables also were discussed at length, with Tim Cipriano, executive director of New Haven School Food in Connecticut, and Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services at Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, sharing their success stories.

The CIA’s Ryan said San Antonio was selected to host the summit for several reasons, chief among them the city’s high prevalence of obesity, particularly in the city’s Hispanic population. San Antonio, under the leadership of Mayor Julian Castro, the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio and the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, has developed initiatives to reduce the trend. One program is ¡Por Vida!, a recognition program that designates healthy dining options at area restaurants.

The invitation-only event will convene next year, May 9-11, in San Antonio.

More information about the summit can be found here.