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The exchange of food across all the continents and oceans, and across millennia, has elevated the eating and drinking experience for virtually everyone on the planet.

Some might say that the ubiquity of globalized packaged food products - products manufactured to meet a profit margin and built for the convenience of consumers and all the players in the food chain - has somewhat diminished the eating experience and created health-related issues. There's some truth in that.

But that first exchange of tomatoes, potatoes, corn, onions, peanuts, cacao beans and kidney beans, crab apples and pineapples, coffee beans, peppers and pepper corns, and many other basic foods not known in large parts of the world until several hundred years ago completely transformed cuisines and raised expectations of how enjoyable eating and drinking can be.

Not to say there isn't room for improvement in how we are enjoying some of these now staple foods, and where we are sourcing them. We are missing something by eating so many potato chips, frozen mashed potatoes, and pre-cooked french fries instead of the unadulterated spud that initially arrived from Peru.There's a lot of tomato going into pizza sauce and ketchup that could be enjoyed freshly sliced or quartered. And, it was odd to me living in Nebraska a few years back that my fresh corn was from Florida. Wouldn't the best-tasting (and more eco-friendly) corn come from a field not more than an hour away?

You don't have to stray too far from home to appreciate how the exchange of food can be transformative too. Fresher. Local. Healthier.

The other day I talked with Chip Paillex, President and Founder of America's Grow-A-Row, a non-profit organization that, with the help of thousands of volunteers who plant and harvest fruits and veggies, donates fresh produce to those in need through food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, and other hunger relief groups. What started in 2002 as a daddy-daughter project on a 30 ft by 30 ft plot of land in rural New Jersey has grown into a multi-farm organization that distributed 6 million servings of fresh produce across seven states last year.

There's no doubt that Chip's experience with America's Grow-A-Row over the past 18 years has been personally transformative. It began as a weekend project. Now it occupies all his time. One of Chip's goals at the outset was to get his four-year old daughter to want to eat fresh, healthy food by planting and harvesting herself. In the process Chip too has adopted healthier eating habits. And the more he gave away of the overabundance of produce from his oversized plot, first to co-workers and neighbors, then to those who really need much more fresh food in their diet but who don't have access to fresh produce, the clearer it became to him that he had stumbled on a calling to serve in this way.

What also became clear to Chip is that many people want to be more actively involved in addressing hunger and malnourishment. This is why America's Grow-a-Row now has nine thousand volunteers. It's transformative for everyone involved.

This is particularly true for volunteers, many of them kids, who come from urban areas with limited access to healthy food. Many of them have never been to a working farm. Imagine tugging a potato out of the ground for the first time. And how gratifying it feels to know that you nurtured it all the way through. How proud you would be hauling home a crate of, say, zucchini squash, green beans, cauliflower, and nectarines at the end of the day.

The volunteers who come to give back keep coming back and spreading the word because they are themselves growing this fresh, healthy food that goes into their local communities. They are getting their hands dirty too. They too are witnessing the growth from seed to fruit. They are sharing in the experience; learning how to "grow a row," and probably teaching a thing or two as well.

What really makes America's Grow-a-Row work, it seems to me, is this valuable exchange built around food for people who share the same patch of Earth. A willingness to work, learn, and serve others flows into the farms, and fresh, healthier food flows to where it's really needed. Goodwill flows in both directions.

There is more talk of food sovereignty and food security, these days. Down-to-earth, grass roots organizations like America's Grow-a-Row can play a needed role in acting on these lofty goals.

My conversation with Chip Paillex will be on a Talk to Me About Food podcast episode dropping on July 1st.

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IRI's New Product Pacesetters Report 2019 was released this week. Every year, IRI Worldwide features the new products that recorded the highest dollar sales in the 52 weeks after launch. Come May, I start looking forward to musing about the list of "winners." Last year, the top 2 new products of 2018 were candy; Kinder Joy, a chocolate egg with a surprise toy inside, and M&M's Caramel. I recall remarking at the time that despite (or maybe because of) all our good intentions to eat healthier, our desire to reward ourselves and others with sweet indulgences is unrelenting.

Snack indulgences still feature in the 2019 list (Pop Tarts Bites and Cheez-it Snap'd) but topping the list, by a considerable margin, at $299 million in its first year, is Bang, a better-for-you energy drink touting formulas based on rigorous nutrition science, and Enfamil Neuro PRO at $235 million. This infant formula is fortified with a new ingredient, Milk Fat Globule Membrane, which helps with brain structure and development. Bang, Enfamil Neuro PRO, as well as #3 Gatorade Zero, and Slim-Fast Keto at #8 represent products that are made with added, or more of, specific functional ingredients.

It's not that the pendulum has swung away from "naughty" food this year, it's likely that we are increasingly looking to food to be more than sustenance, and beverages to do more than hydrate. We want food and drink to do more than just taste good so that we get a base level of satisfaction. This 2020 IRI Pacesetters report reflects, in part, that a growing number of us want food to solve daily problems, and make us better versions of ourselves.

I've heard versions of the following quotes in recent food-related consumer research work...

"I need to be in the zone when I'm at work. If I'm not focused. If I'm not at 100%, it shows, so I can't afford not to be at my best."

"I want to do the best for my child. I want them to be the best they can be everyday, and give them the best chance for a healthy, productive, successful life."

"I'm go, go, go all day. I need protein all day to power through work and power through my work-outs."

Most of us say we believe that following the right diet can maintain or even improve your health, but food and beverage makers continue to market products as problem solvers and image makers because it appeals to this unquenchable appetite for self-betterment; this goes beyond weight management and disease prevention. For most of us, our physical well-being would probably benefit from consuming less sugar, fewer refined grains, more natural fats, and more fiber, but even if most of us do so, I think we will still want to believe that eating food products crafted with specific ingredients can make us smarter, stronger, or more attractive.

There is a parallel, on-going quest to find the next wonder ingredient. Milk was fortified with vitamin D eighty years ago. Orange juice was juiced up with calcium 30 years ago. Turmeric and collagen are hot right now. Look out for cacao fruit, fonio, and sea kelp (and many others, I'm sure) on this horizonless horizon.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

I'm working on a piece of food fiction centered around the suggestion from some nutritionists, and the American Heart Association, that we should eat five colors every day. The story is about an imagined restaurant that embodies this approach. So, my interest was piqued when I came across a just released book from the School of Life called "Thinking and Eating." On the cover is a bright, beautiful lemon.

The free preview of the book shares the authors' musings about the symbolic and sensory powers of the lemon to imbue hope, restore faith, and maybe even kindle anticipation. They also provide two recipes; one for a preserved lemon pasta, the other a lemon curd.

It just so happens that my wife tried out a new recipe over the Memorial Day weekend;

Lemon and Thyme pudding, garnished with blueberries and a mint was sweet, unctuous, and sunshine-y; everything that the authors of this book suggest lemon is, or could be.

The other mood foods marked by striking color that feature in the book include lime, avocado, rhubarb (cooked, anyway), eggplant, dark chocolate, and fig (especially cross-sectioned). The symbolism of an egg is clear, and the book likely makes us appreciate it even more, maybe using the visual contrast of yolk and albumen too. By the way, the five color groups defined by the AHA are, red/pink, blue/purple, yellow/orange, white/brown, and green.

My work spirit is renewed. I'm going to finish writing "The Five Colors," and record it as a podcast. Soon.

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