‘Eat a Little Better’: for an Italian exchange student at Norwich, a message that resonates

Former White House chef and author Sam Kass spoke Nov. 5 at the Todd Lecture Series at Norwich on food and the way we eat. Picture by Norwich University

As an international student at Norwich, many people ask me on a daily basis what I miss most about my country, Italy. My response: “First my family, then the food.”

I was born and raised in the world capital of food, by a pure-blood Italian dad, who is also an amazing cook, and a French mom, who is a wine expert. I have always been used to three high-quality meals per day, every day. Putting aside the Mediterranean diet and the glass of Pinot, when I say I miss the food I do not just mean the edible part of it.

When I heard that Sam Kass, who used to be the personal chef for President Obama and his family in the White House, was visiting Norwich, it was natural of me to want to see what he had to say. In his book “Eat a Little Better” he writes a lot about how food plays different roles in our lives, and reflects a country’s identity. Societies’ relationship with food has evolved, and aspects like expression of culture, jobs, celebrations, social life, and comfort food—especially as a stressed college student—circle around food. As the author was going over these points during the speech, my mind flashed on some of my favorite Mediterranean dishes, such as homemade pasta, fresh mozzarella, and delicious pizza, all as I sat in Mack auditorium, suddenly taking a mental trip of my favorite much-missed Italian foods.

This reminded me of how in my homeland, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day; it is simply composed of an espresso and a piece of bread with jam, or a croissant. Lunch and dinner are the most important meals, and they usually include two to three courses. However, the main contrast stands in the approach to the evening meal. When it is supper time, Mom calls the entire family in the kitchen, there are five of us total, we all gather and help setting the table and cooking the meal. It is an important family-bonding time, since we all spent the day doing different things in different locations. The best part is that we all try to find some time in our busy schedules to sit at the table at the same time, consume the meal together, and talk about our day. In the Italian tradition, what is so called “fast-food” does not apply. There is no such thing like eating in a car or ordering a meal to go. Do not even think about asking for a doggy bag at the restaurant, that is almost illegal! In Italy people spend at least an hour sitting at the table, going through all the entrées, (one of them is definitely pasta) fruits, dessert and, of course, another espresso, while chatting and interacting.

From the day I first landed on campus, I confronted a very different approach to food, especially in a college environment. What I saw as an international student, is that many American kids have bad eating habits, such as binge eating, over-eating, bad food choices and unhealthy midnight snacks, that reflect a general lack of understanding on the fundamentals of nutrition. My personal observations were reinforced by Kass, who shared some alarming data from his research on the overall American way of eating. Poor diet is the number one cause of death in America, with 600,000 people dying a year; one out of three young people has diabetes, and the obesity rate keeps increasing.

The American food environment has shaped people’s decisions, and it is the main cause behind these negative numbers. Food marketing and advertising do not inspire healthy choices; they do the opposite. Famous brands like McDonald are “loving it,” while sponsoring and enticing unhealthy food. I personally believe that the person who invented “Fast Food,” put an “S” in by mistake, and Kass highlighted that what makes food choices so difficult in the States, is also affected by how affordable junk food is compared to fresh fruits or vegetables in the market.

Kass added: “If you care about health you have to care about climate change.” I am glad Kass dove into this topic. After working as a dishwasher in the dining hall at Norwich University, I saw how much food gets wasted and trashed on a daily basis, when it could be given to those in need, or used to make organic compost. According to Kass’s research, 40 percent of food in the USA gets wasted, increasing the production of greenhouse gas emissions that are dramatically impacting the environment.

In Kass’s view, many of the most loved food products, such as coffee, chocolate, wine, and nuts, are at risk of disappearing in the near future, due to the difficulty in their production and the impacts of climate change.

In his talk, Kass pointed out that food is one of “the best joys in life,” but it is crucial to make better choices in the name of a healthier lifestyle. According to his research, 80 percent of the American population is trying to eat healthier, but less than 20 percent actually reaches the goal. It is common to give up after one unsuccessful diet attempt instead of getting back on track, entering a cycle of failures. The former White House chef explained that simple steps can lead to better dieting, such as keeping track of the calorie counts, checking the nutrition labels, putting “temptations” out of sight, avoiding the “what you see, you eat” instinct, while providing incentives for healthier and more nutritious options like veggies and fruits.

A key idea Kass supported is to adopt an “interdisciplinary approach,” and he has been trying to bring some of his knowledge into elementary and high Schools across the country. Through campaigns he initiated such as “Let’s Move” and “Drink More Water,” he highlighted the importance of teaching the young generation what is involved in healthy nutrition, in order to establish a shift in the food culture and habits.

After surviving four years of “American cuisine,” I realize how both the quality and the American way of eating go against the Italian values I grew up with. Food is far from an ordinary source of nourishment in the life of an Italian. It is something to be proud of, a unique way of celebrating family, life, and holidays. From north to south, east to west, each district, each city, even each town has local and traditional dishes. Further, each family prudently hands downs their recipes from generation to generation, without revealing to people outside the household the secret ingredients.

In the U.S., it is totally different; as far as it concerns food, it is like being on a different planet. Here, people eat just to full their bodies with nutrients. There is little bonding or celebration involved, most of the time it is a quick meal to go. In the rare occasion you are actually sitting at the table with other people, they are probably too busy looking at their phones or the TV instead of having conversation.

In his lecture, Sam Kass wanted to make a point on how Americans’ relationship with food is perceived as a downside of the society. It is not by chance Americans are known worldwide for giant size plates full of French fries and hamburgers, for extreme and disgusting eating contests shown on TV, and for a high rate of obesity caused by poor diet habits. His talk changed my perspective on the crucial role food plays in today’s societies, and the dramatic consequences it can lead to. Making more conscious food choices is important not just for the health and wellness of the community, but also for the global impact on the environment. Because let’s be honest…no one deserves to live in a world without chocolate and wine.

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