The folks at Root Down LA know that some veggies are just gross. Or at least, they're gross before their young chefs use a little salt, spice, and even homemade ranch dressing to turn them into healthy treats. In South Los Angeles, Root Down is doing double-duty to confront the obesity epidemic. They're making sure that communities have access to good, fresh veggies — and that local high-schoolers know to cook them. We talked with Megan Hanson about the great food fight going down in LA.
there there: Can you tell us how Root Down LA got started, and why there was a need for it?
Megan:For decades people have been doing nutrition education where they’re mostly talking about healthy food. Instead, we get hands-on with the healthy food, getting kids to eat their veggies by making them taste better, then training those youth be the ones teaching. We started running programming informally four years ago, then formally launched Root Down LA about a year after that. We’re now a fiscally sponsored project under Community Partners.
I love this work. The kids love itand they impress us with their incredible skills. We have a lot of fun getting kids to eat their veggies, but at the end of the day, what we’re really up against is dead serious. The rates of diabetes and obesity we’re up against are terrifying.
Can you give an example of one of those kooky, fun lessons that you’re are doing?
We do this thing where nobody leaves the room until everybody likes a veggie that they didn’t like before. We take the initial approach, “Yeah, this stuff is nasty. So what are we gonna do about it?” We’re like “Who hates tomatoes?” and of course most everybody raises his or her hand. So we bring the tomato-haters up to the front of the room. And we work in stages making them taste tomatoes, first plain, then with a little salt! Inevitably someone will say, “Actually that’s pretty good.” And when that happens, the room shifts. And the rest of the kids are more inclined to get on the tomato-tolerant bandwagon.
Is there any one veggie that ends up being an unexpected hit?
Actually, Brussels sprouts last year surprised me. And we didn’t even roast them! Roasting makes them kind of sweet, brings out the caramel in them. But our kids were eating Brussels sprouts par-boiled with a little bit of salt, and they liked them.
What’s the hardest sell? What’s the thing you have to work hardest to get people to eat?
Well, I hate celery myself. So I have a hard time selling celery. I don’t like it, and they see that. But then some kid will try to convince ME “Oh, it’s not that bad.” And then they’re the ones selling it.
You’re all about busting the myth that healthy food is too expensive, too time-consuming, or nasty to bother cooking. How do you bust that myth?
Here’s the deal: It’s not possible everywhere, but in many places you’re looking at maybe 25 extra dollars a week to get fresh produce, even organic produce, and possibly an extra half hour to get to a market that sells such food. But if you compare those extra costs to what people are going to be spending for insulin and heart medicine down the road, it doesn’t even compare. We’re working hard to increase supplies of such food in the communities where we work, because access can be a major challenge. And, if others aren’t going to bring it in, we’re going to grow and make it.
We also talk about “Who do you want to give your money to? Do you want to give it to somebody who’s trying to grow healthy affordable food in your neighborhood or do you want to give it to the execs at Frito Lay, who are sitting up in their offices, getting rich selling food that is completely nutrient-deplete?”
And to whomever says this takes too long? I’d say, come watch our kids roll in a room and throw down some sautéed chicken, blanched broccoli, and homemade ranch dressing in fifteen minutes. It’s hard to say then, that you can’t make healthy food quickly.
Are there dishes that some people would consider junk food that you guys are interpreting in a healthy way?
Many foods actually, and it can be maddening. Kids think hamburgers aren’t good for you because of the McDonalds backlash. And kids think french fries are never good for you for the same reason. So we make burgers from meat with no added hormones and antibiotics and sweet potato french fries. Soul food too has gotten a really bad rap. But it’s not the homemade soul food killing people, usually it’s the other kind of foods eaten around the soul food. So we have to work against all of that, lest kids think that NOTHING tasty is healthy.
The Eat Real Fest just had their first event in LA, and RootDown was there. What did you guys do with Eat Real, and what were your thoughts?
Well we were stoked to see them come to LA, because they are huge proponents for cottage industry. Our Youth Leaders kids ran their own tasting event. They set their own prices prepped their own food and were thrilled when they sold out. We were stoked for our kids to see what that’s like when you bring people together who know something about making homemade food. It was inspiring our kids to be there and be a part of that culture.