A steady stream of high schoolers filed into the YMCA one afternoon last week, stopping at the Y cafe before heading into the teen center for the remainder of the day. One student ordered a smoothie, one ordered a muffin and another chose a large basket of french fries and a fountain soda.
“You can’t give kids bad choices because they’ll make them,” food consultant Kate Adamick said from a cafe table nearby.
Ms. Adamick is the co-founder of Cook for America, a group that works with school systems across the country and trains chefs and educators in healthier cooking options. She also serves as a consultant for creating better institutional meals, and was the lead consultant on the West Tisbury School kitchen project last year. Last week she met with the YMCA, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and schools on the Island to talk about Cook for America’s programs and how the groups could better work together.
At the YMCA, Ms. Adamick was brought in to develop a new cafe menu “that is in keeping with their mission,” she said, one that helps its members “take care of their bodies, minds and spirits.”
“They are not only here to serve but to teach, and to act as a role model,” Ms. Adamick said. Some food items may be replaced with healthier options, which will “help kids develop a palette that’s a little broader than they might be exposed to.”
The basket of french fries may be the first thing to go, Ms. Adamick said. Instead she suggested oven roasted potatoes tossed with olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary.
But the Y will need community support to make this a viable change, she said.
“One of the ways the community can support this new endeavor is to come in and eat and vote with their fork in favor of the kinds of food we know are both good and good for them,” she said.
“It’s important that the entire community support this because what we’re looking at is childhood obesity rates that have tripled in the last three decades . . . and all of the other diet related illnesses associated with bad eating habits that we all have because we’ve all been taught to eat in ways that are not necessarily in our own best interest but the best interests of the pocket books of the food and beverage industry.”
When Ms. Adamick visits a new client, she examines the facility, the people working there, what’s being offered, how it’s displayed and financial records.
“Anything from, should we replace condiment packages with squeeze bottles and save hundreds of thousands of dollars doing so, to why is the cooler with the highest selling item so far away from the cashier,” she said.
“And I listen to people a lot,” she continued. “What I will find in these three days [on the Vineyard] is that you already have all the answers here on the Island . . . because you have the people here to support this change and to endorse this and embrace it to make it happen. That’s what happened with the [West Tisbury] school.”
Ms. Adamick was instrumental in helping the West Tisbury School make the change from using an outside food service provider to building a new kitchen and preparing meals in house. She served as a consultant on the project and communicated via phone and Skype with school leaders. Ms. Adamick praised the Vineyard’s “passionate community of people who really understand what a healthy food system is.”
“I’d love to see you get it right here and parade you around the country as the perfect role model,” she added.
Ms. Adamick’s "big goal in life" is to put herself out of business. This won’t happen any time soon, though. She logs about 200,000 miles a year flying around the country to visit school districts and other institutions.
“I am astounded and delighted that this particular arc [of change] still seems to be climbing upward,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of great things ahead of us and they have to be ahead of us because our children’s lives depend on it. I’m glad it hasn’t lost focus.”
One simple change she often suggests is changing the way people talk about eating with each other and with their children.
“There’s a story that in America moms say, eat this, it’s good for you, and in Europe moms say, eat this, it’s good. Those messages are very, very different and very critical,” she said. “Remember, when you’re talking to children, try not to use the word nutrition because you might as well be telling your child to do their least favorite chore.”
Making a commitment to cook with your family once a week is another way equalize the conversation “so that everyone has a role at least once a week.”
And don’t be intimidated by cooking shows, she said. Think Julia Child dropping chicken on the floor rather than Top Chef.
“Cooking is not a competition . . where you will then be judged,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be an effort and make it fun.”