Farmer, chef and doctor discuss the future of food

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Chef Spike Gjerde's 14-ounce dry-aged rib-eye has been "a mainstay" on Woodberry Kitchen's menu over the years.

The meat, which hails from a farm in Baltimore County, is prepared in a cast iron skillet and is basted with butter, garlic and herbs. Gjerde calls the rib-eye "beautiful," but has recently questioned its place on the menu, even showing a smidge of guilt for serving the prime cut.

"I don't think that steak would be on our menu if we were opening today, because our conception of where meat fits into the diet is changing," says Gjerde, who is the executive chef and co-owner of Foodshed restaurant group, a company that includes Woodberry Kitchen, Artifact Coffee, ShooFly Diner and Parts and Labor Butcher Shop and Restaurant.

"Rather, I think we're looking at dishes that use meat as flavor," he says.

Gjerde was one of three panelists present at the Sept. 9 FRESHFARM Markets Feed Series, titled "Chef + Doctor + Farmer = A Revolution." He was joined by Zach Lester, owner of Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Virginia, and Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, author, professor, oncologist and health care adviser. The three experts came together to discuss the full-circle impact of food — from how it's grown to how it's consumed and its impact on health. Here are some of the highlights:

When Chef Gjerde opened Woodberry Kitchen seven years ago, he says he started to learn more about agricultural practices in the U.S, and decided he wanted to separate himself from "big-ag."

"I really didn't want to be a part of that; I didn't want to be a part of something so large-scale," he says.

After deciding he was, for the most part, finished working with the large food suppliers who often strong-armed him into ordering produce he didn't need, Gjerde quickly became one of the area's biggest local food advocates. Now he works closely with more than 60 different farmers and producers in the region to purchase the grains, meats, dairy, poultry, eggs, seafood, produce and wine he serves in his restaurants.

Gjerde, a 2014 nominee for the James Beard "Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic" award, is a pioneer in the trend; he led the charge in sourcing local food. Now, restaurants that incorporate ingredients from small-scale regional farmers are the norm, especially in urban areas.

"On some level, the restaurant business in this country has been about buying something for as little as you can possibly pay and trying to charge as much as you possibly can," Gjerde says. For him, that is no longer the case. Now, he pays more, but says it's worth it to support the farmers who are growing the country's food supply.

"Because if they don't succeed, I can't," he says.

Lester, a farmer who focuses on sustainable vegetable, herb and flower gardening, sells his produce to at local farmers markets, including the FRESHFARM Dupont Circle market. But he also sells a large percentage of his crops to chefs in the Washington area. For some, he even takes special orders on what to grow.

"People value the work that we put into the soil; they value the taste; they value our relationship," he says.

Both Gjerde and Lester face a common criticism in the industry: the notion that local food is elite — snobby, even. For a small farmer, the perception of elitism is comical. After renting land for several years, Lester purchased a farm in 2009 through an infrastructure loan and a mortgage from the USDA.

"If anything, my sales are down and prepared sales are up," Lester says.

Gjerde shares similar feelings; he's taken on the burden of higher food costs by purchasing local foods. But Gjerde says the conversation about incorporating more local and fresh foods into our diets has to start somewhere — and a restaurant is the perfect place. That is, if the conversation continues after dinner.

"If it just stays at Woodberry (and other restaurants), then it will forever be a thing for the elite," he says.

Lester says affordability comes down to quantity. Often, consumers need to buy less of the wrong foods and more healthy foods. To him, the solution is simple.

"Pay more, buy less," he says. "And value what you value."

Emanuel says the connection between diet and health has been ignored for too long.

"When I went to medical school, many years ago, the amount of time I got on diet, nutrition and food was literally zero," he says, adding that patients with diet-related questions or concerns were referred to dietitians. "But we were completely ignorant about what they did and never integrated it into what we did."

The health system's dismissal of food is even evident in its food. "Some of the worst food I've ever had is either the stuff given to patients or the stuff served in the (cafeteria)," Emanuel says.

And while Emanuel calls medical education "the slowest evolving organism in the universe," he says the U.S. can expect to see some changes in the next decade or so.

"I'm pretty confident that diet and talking to people about change in diet is going to be so important," he says.

According to Emanuel, 40 percent to 50 percent of health care is impacted by three things: diet/obesity, exercise and smoking.

"If you do them all right, you're not going to live forever and there's no guarantee you still won't get cancer, heart disease or have a stroke. But it changes your odds."

The shift in what Americans consume, he says, starts with a more commonsensical approach to food. Several years ago, the assumption was that fats made people fat. Emanuel says this belief sent people "running into a low-fat environment, which has turned out to be quite toxic."

Food manufacturers removed fat content from their food and enhanced their product's flavor with salt and sugar. Ever since, the consumption of processed foods has been on the rise in the U.S. Americans spend nearly 23 percent of their grocery bills on processed foods and sweets, according to data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

And while some argue processed food is cheaper than fresh, whole foods, processed foods pack more caloric bang for the buck, often leading to higher health-associated costs down the road.

"Getting off processed foods is probably going to be a very important transition for the country," Emanuel says.

He says as consumer demand drifts toward healthier options, the big food companies will follow. This is already evident in some of the world's most powerful brands.

"Coke is in real trouble over the fact that consumption of sodas is plummeting," Emanuel says. "When demand changes, they have to respond."

And while swapping the salty chips, packaged cupcakes and sugary beverages for leafy greens, fresh fruit and nuts is a daunting task, Emanuel says a similar situation proves it's possible: he points to the increased rates at which people have quit smoking in the last 25 years.

"Food is part of our habits. It's part of lots of our cultural experiences; it's not just the food and the calories. And all of us know how difficult it is to change our habits."


Information from: WTOP-FM,

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