Sunday, April 28, 2013

Science and Food at UCLA

Last week, Terry and I took an opportunity to check out a lecture, part of UCLA's series about Science and Food. The program, called "Edible Education", featured a short introduction by life scientist Amy Rowat, a detailed lecture from Chef Alice Waters, and a panel discussion with Dr. Wendy Slusser and Chef David Binkle.

The night began with an introduction from Amy Rowat, a UCLA researcher in the Life Sciences department. Her focus was eating seasonally--and my goodness, am I convinced! Later this week I'm hoping to provide more information on how exactly to go about eating seasonally and why I'm ready to dive in.

Though it's a tough call, I think my favorite part of the night was Chef Waters' talk about Fast Food Values and Slow Food Values. She explained that we live in a "Fast Food Culture," a term borrowed from Eric Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation. Her emphasis was that a fast food culture values:

  • uniformity (everything should look, taste, feel the same--a loss of cultural differences)
  • efficiency (speed over quality)
  • availability (constant access, as opposed to eating seasonally locally)
  • cheapness (if you're paying less than the full value of something, someone is getting cheated somewhere)
  • more is better (increased volume, but it's really just the illusion of choice--in most cases, all "choices" are the same or are from the same large company)
  • misused terminology (what does "natural" mean? and "sustainable"? we don't have standards for these terms)
  • dishonesty (a willingness to lie in order to increase profits)
The counter force, naturally, is a slow food culture, which values:
  • tradition (thinking back to how our ancestors ate)
  • brightness (think brightly colored produce and bright sunshine)
  • integrity (doing the right thing, even if the right thing is paying more or not earning as much)
  • true economy (focus on value instead of getting a deal)
  • honesty (being forthcoming and open about your products)
  • beauty (acknowledging the beauty in nature and not messing with it to create new foods!)
  • love (appreciating each other and enjoying each other's company, especially over a meal)
  • creativity (finding new perspective)

I also liked that Chef Waters related all these food ideas to other topics as well: education, work, healthcare, communication, and politics, to name a few. She illustrated how the fast food culture has changed so much of the rest of our society, and how a slow food culture could benefit virtually the entire world.

Upon arrival at the event, everyone received a little box with food samples: a hearty slice of banana bread, a big sweet potato muffin, and an orange slice.

Chef David Binkle addressed those samples later in the evening and explained that they are actual options for students at LAUSD. Chef Binkle is working to change the culture of food in Los Angeles's public school system and has made major progress, including:

  • shifting away from additives and preservatives
  • increasing use of local foods (I think he said about 70% of foods in LAUSD are from within 200 miles of Los Angeles)
  • working with companies to change their foods in order to serve higher quality meals to the students
I felt so inspired and uplifted listening to Chef Binkle. As a public high school teacher, I often feel as though there are issues in education too big to tackle. But Chef Binkle took a huge issue--feeding healthier meals to 600,000+ students daily--and made some major changes in just a few years. I'm thrilled that LAUSD found a chef, not a politician, to implement these changes and ensure that the students are eating quality ingredients every day.

The final panelist was Dr. Wendy Slusser, a pediatrician and integral part of the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative. Aside from officially making UCLA a smoke-free campus this week (the first UC to do so!), the Healthy Campus Initiative aims to "make the healthy choice the easy choice". Here's how they're making that magic happen:
  • at the new dining hall at UCLA, the choices are seasonal, healthier, and prepared with minimal additives
  • new Fiat Lux courses (one-unit seminar classes offered to first year students): Nourishing Emotional Health through Creative Process and Nutrition and Body Image Life Skills (the second one was actually offered when I was a student also and is creatively subtitled "Cosmo Thinks You're Fat? Well I Ain't Down with That")
  • medicinal herbs garden at the UCLA hospital
Dr. Slusser also talked about "getting back to Julia Child," so you know I was totally smitten with her. But she also emphasized the importance of internal vs. external cues (the size of the plate, using all five senses to experience your meal) and breastfeeding for infants (as a pediatrician, this point was particularly close to her heart).

Looking back on the evening, one point that stood out to me above many others was from Chef Waters. She said that we need to focus on good taste. When food tastes good--fresh, seasonal, local, ripe--it is more satisfying. When we are already satisfied, we don't continue eating because we're not looking for more. Bland, overprocessed, generic foods lack that flavor and genuine satisfaction that should come from eating a delicious meal.

Overall, the night was extremely educational and fascinating. It reinforced some ideas I've already been learning about and also provided some new insights. I'm excited that so many people--at least two hundred--were there to hear about such an important topic. I'm eager to learn as much as I can about the food I eat, so I'm happy to see I'm not the only one by any means!

The Science and Food series, hosted by the UCLA Life Sciences department, has another lecture next month: The Science of Pie. I'm seriously considering going to that one, too, though the topic is obviously not about food reform but instead about delicious pies and the famous pastry chefs who make them!

If you could attend a lecture on any topic, what would you choose? I think I'd go for something about fitness--perhaps recent trends and what is most effective and why. 


  1. Sounds like a great lecture! Have you read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle? I found it to be a fascinating read on one woman's journey to eat locally/seasonally. We were already doing some vegetable gardening at the time, but it inspired me to do more and to delve more deeply into preserving my own foods. I highly recommend the book!

  2. What a great lecture to have attended - really glad to hear LAUSD is embracing healthier habits for the students and consulting the real experts rather than the politicians!