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You are what you eat 

Culinary medicine and nutrition education are beginning to transform health care in Atlanta and beyond

"How many of you have a chef's knife in your house?"

Dr. Preston Maring posed this question during his talk at Georgia Organics' recent Farm Rx conference while holding a gleaming kitchen knife over his head. Less than half in attendance raised their hands. "Now how many of you have actually sharpened it in the last year?" Almost all of the hands went down.

Maring is an OB-GYN at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, Calif., where he's worked for 41 years. Over the last decade, he's become an increasingly visible advocate for food as preventive medicine. Maring has spearheaded the establishment of farmers markets at more than 50 Kaiser Permanente health facilities nationwide.

"[Ideally], everybody would have a sharp chef's knife and a salad spinner. They would get their kids involved in the kitchen, and we'd eat more of a whole food, plant-based diet. If we did that, we would save the future of American health," he says.

According to the CDC's most recent data, one in three U.S. adults are obese, including 28 percent of adults in Georgia. Diabetes now affects 25.8 million people nationwide, while Type 2, the form most often caused by poor diet, accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all diagnosed cases. And for the first time in the modern era, researchers say, children in America may have shorter life expectancies than their parents.

The New York Times' food columnist Mark Bittman has spent most of the last two decades urging Americans to change their diets. "Nothing affects public health in the United States more than food," he wrote in a recent column. "Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes kill more than a million people a year — nearly half of all deaths — and diet is a root cause of many of those diseases."

Improving the health of our city and our nation won't come easy. It will require institutional change in our health care system: how doctors are educated and how hospitals provide food; comprehensive cultural change — viewing food as medicine and nourishment for our bodies; and valuing sustainable agriculture as the primary source for that healthy food. Right now, public health professionals in Atlanta and beyond are inventing new community and academic partnerships to focus on preventing disease rather than simply treating it.

Maring's knife demonstration illustrates what he sees as one of the largest challenges to improving our nation's health: getting people back in the kitchen and cooking.

Alice Rolls, executive director of Georgia Organics, calls this "the inconvenient truth" of the good food movement. "We're basically asking you to get in the kitchen, and it's not as convenient as buying fast food or prepared foods," she says.

Rolls was hired as executive director in 2004 after nearly 25 years working for environmental nonprofits. Over the last 12 years, Rolls says she's seen the conversation in the food community broaden from organic food to local agriculture, and now, to health. In many ways, it's a response to the fact that American health and agriculture have devolved into systems of convenience that lack emphasis on preventive measures.

"How do we grow food? Well, we use synthetic fertilizers and we use pesticides because it's easy. Same thing with health care ... 'I'm gonna fix that problem by giving you a pharmaceutical.' We need to get back to the foundation, rediscovering the joys of eating what is truly good for us, while trying to wean ourselves from our chemical-style agriculture, which is just so traumatic to our soils and to our health," Rolls says. "We have a lot of work ahead of us to make these connections."

Georgia Organics held its 16th annual conference in Atlanta Feb. 22-23. Aptly named Farm Rx, the event included an unprecedented focus on food as medicine. The conference brought together farmers, dieticians, doctors such as Dr. Charles E. Moore, assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine and practicing physician at Grady Hospital, and local food advocates such as Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave. Wholesome Wave works to double the value of each benefit dollar for families enrolled in the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) at participating farmers markets.

"We know that food can be medicine," CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said during Farm Rx's final keynote address. "But we also know that good food is not readily accessible to everyone. It's a problem I know that many people are struggling with ... and we're also trying to change it, make that good food that can be medicine available to more people," Gupta said.

Georgia Organics is currently working on a partnership between DeKalb Medical Center and Decatur's Wednesday evening farmers market. To Rolls, providing a benefit for health care employees while putting retail dollars in the pockets of farmers is a win-win.

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