Film producer and environmental advocate Laurie David has a new message: cook or be cooked.
“This is the first generation of kids that are going to lead shorter lifespans than their parents; it’s unconscionable,” Ms. David said on the front porch of her Chilmark home. “Cooking is one of the powerful solutions to this problem.”
To spread that message, Ms. David has embarked on two food-related projects this spring — Fed Up, a documentary she made with longtime news anchor Katie Couric, and a new cookbook, The Family Cooks, that provides tools for families to cook together.
In an interview with the Gazette this month, Ms. David talked about the need to change the conversation around health and food. Previously, she produced An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary with Al Gore that helped catapult the discussion of climate change into the public arena. Ms. David is hoping Fed Up will have a similar spark. Ms. David is the executive producer of the documentary, which was directed by Stephanie Soechtig. The film will be screened on July 23 at the Performing Arts Center at the regional high school with a discussion following the movie with Ms. Couric.
Fed Up targets the issues of health, food policy and marketing schemes that have created what Ms. David refers to as a “food fog.”
“I hope the movie goes a long way in getting an honest conversation going,” she said.
The film set out to answer a big question: Why are kids getting so sick?
“Even if you think you know a lot about food, you are going to be surprised,” she said. “One of the more upsetting things is that the government and the food industry knew 30 years ago that we were eating too much sugar. They knew, and this was before the explosion of the snack food industry, the explosion of every kind of liquid drink you can imagine. I find it really upsetting.”
School lunches, nutrition labels and regulating marketing aimed at children are some areas that need improvement, Ms. David said. Small businesses and individuals can also help bring about change.
“If every small business in the country decides they care about the health of our children and future of this country, they’ll remove candy from the check out area,” she said. “They know the food is addictive and cues your brain and they make money from it, but at what cost? What are the moral implications of this?”
For home cooks, that conversation can start at the windowsill.
“If you have a window you can have a nice little pot of herbs and never have to buy those terrible herbs from a supermarket that are closed up into plastic within an inch of their lives,” she said.
Ms. David also wanted to provide an easy access solution to get kids and families interested in cooking. A few years ago, Ms. David wrote the Family Dinner with Kristin Unrenholdt, but they felt their work was unfinished.
“We wanted to come up with faster recipes with less ingredients and really inspire people to get cooking,” she said. Her new cookbook includes tools for including kids in the kitchen.
“Even if you have them rip the herbs or stir or be your official taste-tester, that just engages kids in a way that not participating doesn’t.”
Ms. David also wanted to pass on family recipes to her two college-age daughters.
“I really wanted them to have their family recipes and I wanted them to be able to cook for themselves.”
Her kids were also what inspired her in the first place to take family eating more seriously.
“When I became a mom I started eating more organic food and feeding them more organic food,” she said. “Even with that, I wish I could take back all the chicken fingers and Goldfish that I fed them over the years not realizing how bad it was.”
One family dinner was particularly inspiring, she said.
“I had this revelation one night when my kids were teenagers and dinner was over and I could not believe they were still at the table. Dessert was done, there was not a crumb left, the tea was drunk. And there they were and they were talking to me and I thought, I did do something right as a parent.”
Ms. David is now helping other kids get started on the healthy path to eating right, and not just through her film and books. She is growing food, too, at her Wise Owl Farm in Chilmark. Last year she donated 1,600 pounds of sweet potatoes to Vineyard schools and nonprofit groups.
“That’s the ultimate. I wish everyone could have that experience. It’s so rewarding,” she said. “It’s just an extraordinary feeling watching things grow and knowing you can eat it. We feed our family, we feed our friends and we give a lot of food away. And that’s rewarding too.”
“Kids have to be taught,” she continued. “We teach kids how to ride a bike, that’s our job. They fall off and get back on and then you’re running alongside them, until all of a sudden the child is riding a bike by themselves and they’re free and feel great and have so much self-esteem. We have to do the same thing with food.”