A Rust Belt {Food} Revolution

A Rust Belt {Food} Revolution

Wed 27 Mar 2013

Story by Leah Lizarondo Shannon

At the turn of the century, the Pittsburgh region grew to be one of the major economic forces in the United States. Led by the steel industry, the region experienced industrial and commercial growth culminating in an era of post-war “renaissance”. The “Steel City” was a leader – with an urban and population growth to match. However, in the 1970s, with increased competition in steel production, the city lost its leadership in the industry and began a period of economic and population decline.

But the region is one of the most resilient. With public and private collaboration aimed to revive the region and led by industries such as technology and healthcare, Pittsburgh is yet again emerging as an economic force. In fact, recently, the City has been a veritable valedictorian when it comes to accolades – getting “best of” recognition from major organizations and the press. The Sierra Club, The National Geographic Traveler, US News & World Report, Forbes Magazine among others have recognized the city as most livable, most beautiful, most affordable, best place for “clean economy jobs” among many others! And the awards keep coming.

Clearly, Pittsburgh is no stranger to revolutions. And so it is only appropriate that Pittsburgh be the first to take on Jamie Oliver’s challenge to create a city-wide Food Revolution. At the One Young World Summit in Pittsburgh on October 2012, seven thought leaders, from different sectors raised their hands and accepted the charge.
While Huntington, WV and Los Angeles, CA were the first cities to experience such a revolution, Pittsburgh, PA is the first city to essentially, lead itself into it.

The revolutionaries are approaching change from different fronts, covering the city in initiatives that range from top-down to totally grassroots. Here are the magnificent seven:

Public Sector

What is a City-wide revolution without involvement from its elected leader? The Mayor’s Office has launched a program to install community gardens in low income areas to help increase access to fresh produce. It has been proven time and again, through many garden programs across different urban areas, that growing your own food increases the consumption of fruits and vegetables. The City’s goal is to plant 10 edible gardens in one year, producing about 2000 lbs. of produce, positively impacting at least 200 families.

Public Schools

It is inarguable that children are the most important constituents of the Food Revolution. The fight for good school food is ongoing and its importance is underscored by the fact that most children in public schools depend on the food they have in school as their major source of nourishment.

Two programs work with students of different ages to educate them and their families on healthy eating.

The Propel Schools, in partnership with Adagio Health, has instituted a program designed to educate children and their caregivers. The goal is to have students learn AND adopt good eating habits and increase physical activity as recommended by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The program will also provide education to the children’s caregivers to reinforce what kids learn in school. Once a month, Adagio Heath conducts food education classes ranging from food tastings and education on food safety, cooking and gardening. This is the pilot year and feedback from the children, their parents and the faculty have already been positive. This provides the school a good foundation for setting measurable outcomes in the coming school year.

Working with high school students, The Environmental Charter School (a charter school in the City) in partnership with Bar Marco (a restaurant in one of the City’s food hubs, The Strip District) has launched the Food Revolution Cooking Club (FRCC). The goal is to reach Pittsburgh youth and “connect them to local Chefs in a way that provides students with the tools to make healthier food decisions, learn cooking skills, and teach them a trade that they can feel empowered by and proud of, so that the students…become catalysts for change.” Working initially with Obama High School in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh, 18 freshmen and sophomore students work weekly with local chefs to learn a variety of skills. The long term vision of the Food Revolution Cooking Club include replicating the program in other schools, providing summer job opportunities for students and promoting a healthy school culture. Already, the FRCC is working with another school, Brashear, in a weekly breakfast series. This grassroots program has also rallied leading chefs to cook in a dinner that raised over $9,000 for purchasing tools and ingredients and provide funds for field trips and other immersive activities.

Private Sector

From nonprofits to a global food leader, organizations are banding together to add to the City’s Food Revolution arsenal.

Whole Foods Market plans to develop a food education and distribution program in a local school -- the “meal-in-a-bag program”. Three specific initiatives that support this campaign include a local food celebration day in the Whole Foods parking lot to raise funds and awareness for the meal-in-a-bag program; a 5% day, where 5% of the profits go toward the program; and in the summer the Whole Foods food truck for the Northeast region will come to Pittsburgh to determine the feasibility of having one specifically for the city. These trucks will distribute the meals-in-a-bag as well as become a “vehicle” for food education.

United Way of Allegheny County, in partnership with and seed funded by Eat N’ Park, one of the region’s leading restaurant groups, has launched fitUnited, an initiative that seeks to “mobilize communities to motivate kids’ healthy habits.” With a goal of partnering with 300 organizations by October 2013, fitUnited asks organizations to make a three year commitment to improve nutrition and physical activity within their organization and/or the community they serve. fitUnited will provide best practices and various resources to support the participating organizations and help their programs become a success.

Phipps Conservatory, an organizational leader in initiatives focused on sustainability, introduced Let’s Move Pittsburgh in 2011, modeled after First Lady Michelle Obama’s national campaign. In response to Jamie’s challenge, Let’s Move Pittsburgh initiated the 10,000 Tables campaign with the objective of signing up 10,000 Pittsburgh families to pledge to increase the number of meals they cook and eat together as a family. Let’s Move Pittsburgh will provide resources such as cooking demonstrations, meal kits, hands-on activities in collaboration with other organizations and various e-resources. To date, over 1,400 families have pledged to join this challenge.

Finally, UPMC, the region’s largest health system and employer with 56,000 employees has instituted a Dining Smart program. With this program, UPMC ensures that employees have access to healthy food choices and food education. UPMC will also use its reach to support the City’s other Food Revolution initiatives by raising awareness for them within the organization and encouraging employee involvement.

From edible gardens in city neighborhoods, to food education in public schools touching children from elementary to high school, to food industry leaders spreading awareness and to organizations led by the City’s largest employer providing access and education – Pittsburgh is laying the foundation to set a precedent for other major cities on how to rally across sectors to fan the fires of a Food Revolution.

About the author: Leah Lizarondo Shannon is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She is also the founder of FullWell, an Integrative Nutrition Counseling and Food Education practice. She received her training in Health Counseling from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and has trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute, both in New York City. She received her Certification in Plant Based Nutrition from Cornell University and she works with the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine as a volunteer Food for Life Instructor, teaching cooking classes for cancer and diabetes prevention and survival. She is currently completing her Yoga Alliance Yoga Teacher Certification at Yoga Matrika.

Photos: Top: Roseanne Martin (www.roseannemartinphotography.com), Bottom - Bonnie Culbertson


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