One of the more significant topics of debate in America is focused on the cost of healthcare and the millions of people who are ill-prepared to deal with health issues due to a lack of insurance or insufficient insurance. It is, case in point, one of the key issues in the most recent presidential election. We are all aware of the concerns and most of us have suffered from the high costs of treating aliments of various types. So, why should this be of concern to the restaurant industry and those who work in the more than one million restaurant kitchens across America? I propose that we (the industry and those who call the kitchen – home) have been in denial – promoting that any connection to health issues is not our concern, but rather the fault of the consumer.
Let’s look at some facts presented by the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Disease:
 35.7% of American adults are considered obese
 6.3% are considered morbidly obese
 1/3 of children under the age of 18 are overweight or obese
This data applies to a percentage of the entire population – not any one socio-economic group, or ethnic population (although there is a difference based on available data). For those who are overweight, obese, or specifically those who are morbidly obese, the following health issues can be attributed to this reality:
 Type 2 Diabetes
 Heart Disease
 High Blood Pressure
 Liver Disease
 Some Types of Cancer
 Kidney Disease
This means that at some level – your diet and ability to control weight has a direct connection to controlling these diseases. Let me reiterate – to a degree, we can minimize or eliminate the threat of many of these diseases by controlling what and how much we eat.
Back to the question of why should those who work in the restaurant business care – The National Restaurant Association points to the fact that nearly 50% of the American family food dollar is spent in some type of restaurant. Are we then at fault, to some degree, for the national epidemic of obesity and the health problems that ensue? At the very least, we are enablers. How can we ignore a responsibility that we have for the health of the general public?
Look at it another way – with all of the talk about The Affordable Healthcare Act, the always escalating cost of other forms of health insurance, the crippling cost to businesses that provide some level of health insurance for workers, and the increasing presence of the aforementioned diseases among our population – no one seems to be focusing on the cause, but rather the cost of treating the effects. If the focus were changed then maybe, just maybe, we could build truly affordable healthcare and disease prevention in America. If, in fact, food does (and it clearly does) play a role in our health and wellbeing, then shouldn’t we be more proactive as a restaurant industry in doing our part?
Much of the attention is placed on the Fast Food Industry since it is a visible target, and there should be attention placed there, but if we took a serious look at other segments such as family style operations, diners, institutional food operations (offices, schools, plants, etc.) food trucks, and yes – fine dining, we could easily find equal fault.
The average healthy American should not consume more than 2,000 calories of food per day and keep most of those calories away from fat, and if the individual is prone to focus on overall health – that number should be less and include a serious dose of daily exercise. To use the Fast Food example – the average Fast Food restaurant meal contains 57-88% of those 2,000 daily calories – that’s just one meal of the three that are typically consumed. This doesn’t even factor in the amount of sodium, calories from fat, or food that may contain GMO’s or potential carcinogens. If you critiqued the other restaurant segments we may certainly find food of a higher caliber – composed of more fresh ingredients, and more pleasant as an experience, but we would also typically find that food to be excessive in portion size and calories, still high in sodium and fat, and much more expensive to boot.
Some attempts have been made to discourage consumption of certain foods (NYC’s attempt to cut back on availability and tax consumption of high caloric soda drinks), but then they are quickly dismissed as an infringement on a person’s right to choose what they want to eat or drink. Even First Lady Obama’s push to eat better and exercise and her visible inclusion of a White House garden as a guide for others to follow, has been criticized by some as an intrusion of individual rights. Lawmakers have even come out against any real attempt at helping people to control their health through better food choices.
One of the realities that I find most intriguing about chefs and the restaurant business is that through it all we have maintained a fairly high level of trust from the American consumer. People do follow our lead and respond at some level to the educational approach towards dining that we can promote. We (chefs and restaurateurs) are the ambassadors for food integrity, portion control, balance in meals, building great flavors without using potentially harmful ingredients, and designing experiences around the food that we prepare. Regardless of the segment that we work in, this influence is possible.
Now, some will say that our job as restaurant folks is to give the population what they want and not question their decision. From a business perspective I certainly get this philosophy, but should we always set aside responsibility for the easy way to profit? We have a role to play as food educators that would allow consumers to experience how exceptional food can be without placing their health in jeopardy.
I am often taken back by what I see in peoples’ grocery store shopping carts and feel remorse for a population that is unaware of how to cook, or who simply view their choices as the most affordable way to get enough calories in their families diet to satisfy. This is not as much an issue of choice; this is an issue of education and mentoring.
Chefs, cooks, and restaurateurs are in the best position to serve as those mentors. The menus that we plan and execute can and should reflect our need to be creative, our desire to please, our commitment to profit, our wish to develop food experiences that bring people back, and our responsibility to help guests live a healthy life.
Chefs know that the real challenge is to create delicious food that not only meets peoples’ needs, but exceeds the expectation of their experience. It is far more interesting to use your skills to determine how to do this in a conscientious manner, without excessive calories, fat, sodium, sugar, etc. This is what makes cooking interesting and rewarding.
These past few months have been absorbed with political anxiety and polarized dialogue about who is right and who is wrong. Oftentimes we sit back and think, “well things didn’t go the way I had hoped – so what can I do to make a difference?” As cooks, chefs, and restaurateurs we have an opportunity, as well as a responsibility, to do what we do best – create delicious, balanced, beautiful, and healthy food for those who spend money in our restaurants. Let’s consider investing a bit more time with the “healthy” part of that responsibility. If we could help to guide people towards reducing their suffering from diet related disease – wouldn’t this be a noble act?
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Data references in this article:
The National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive, and Kidney Disease