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Food series sheds light on eating healthy

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

The Museum of Science has jumped into the national food debate with its new series, “Let’s Talk About Food.”

The weekend series, launched earlier this month,  included a panel discussion with food scholars and activists, cooking demonstrations with six Boston chefs, and a showing of the new documentary film “Fresh.”

Director of Current Science and Technology David Rabkin explained that the events represent the evolving mission of the Museum of Science — the Museum is shifting some attention away from science toward “the issues of our times,” Rabkin said in an interview with the Banner.

“There is nationwide interest in food going beyond obesity,” he said. “Food is very close to us. But food is so much more complex . . . than we often think of.”

Usually, he explained, people only think of food in terms of its taste, convenience, cost and sometimes nutrition — even though people’s food choices affect bigger issues like the environment, public health and social justice.

According to Rabkin, the Museum sees itself in a public education role, helping the community grapple with these important but complex topics — and their connection to science. The Museum is “not trying to tell people what to do,” he insisted. Rather, its programming should help people become more food-literate in order to make the best decisions for themselves and for their communities.

 Last Friday, the Museum kicked off the series with the panel discussion, “Food For Thought: Setting the Agenda,” featuring Lilian Cheung, director of health promotion and communication at the Department of Nutrition in the Harvard School of Public Health; and John Crawford, science and policy manager of the New England Fisheries Campaign, Pew Charitable Trusts. Also featured were Timothy Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition and policy; and Karen Spiller, project director for the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness.

The four shared their expertise on different food topics, ranging from nutrition, to agriculture, social justice and local fishing. Focusing on nutrition, Cheung discussed each group in the food pyramid, correcting many common misperceptions about what a healthy diet looks like. For instance, she explained that it is fat type, not amount that matters most — so the unsaturated fats found in olive oil, canola oil and peanut oil are safe to eat, while the saturated fats and trans-fats found in margarine and fried food should be avoided.

Cheung also showed a diagram of what a person’s dinner plate should look like — half fruits and vegetables, a quarter whole grains, and a quarter protein — which stands in contrast to most Americans’ perception that protein should be the biggest part of each meal.

Spiller discussed some of the food-related health inequities in Boston, in particular, obesity. Using the Boston Public Health Commission’s figures, she showed that at 40 percent, Mattapan’s obesity rates stands not only high above citywide levels, but is the highest in the state of Massachusetts. Limited access to quality, affordable food, as well as poverty itself, contributes to these health problems, she explained.

 And, speaking on sustainability in the oceans, Crawford detailed the history of Boston’s fishing policies, and warned that most stocks in New England have already been depleted, or will be over-fished soon.

The next morning, “Let’s Talk About Food” shifted gears — from the intellectual to the gustatory. Six prominent chefs from the Boston area teamed up with amateur “citizen chefs” to offer live cooking demonstrations before an eager and hungry crowd.  

The chefs included Jody Adams from Rialto, Chris Douglass from Ashmont Grill and Tavolo, and Tiffani Faison from Rocca. Also featured were Rahul Moolgaonkar from Wolfgang Puck Catering, Jason Santos from Gargoyles on the Square, and Ana Sortun from Oleana and Sofra Bakery and Café.

Preparing a wide range of dishes, the culinary teams quickly whipped up tasty meals like grilled bluefish with pomegranate glaze, chili rubbed pork tenderloin, meatballs and pan-seared potato and garbanzo cakes.

And closing out the weekend was a screening of the new documentary “Fresh,” by Ana Joanes. Featuring many high-profile food activists like author Michael Pollan, farmer Joel Salatin, and urban gardener Will Allen, the film explores many aspects of the American food landscape — from industrialized animal farms to sustainable urban gardens.

Rabkin said he hopes that “Let’s Talk About Food” will appeal to a more general audience in Boston — not just “foodies.”

“A lot of people want to know more about it [food],” he said. “But they’re not necessarily going to pick up one of Michael Pollan’s books.” The series, he envisions, will create a comfortable space where newcomers can enter the national food conversation.

And this is an important conversation, Rabkin emphasized—“food as a topic will be with us for a while.”

The Museum of Science’s series “Let’s Talk About Food” will continue through the fall and into next spring.