Cafe Society

Eat their words: Kimbal Musk of The Kitchen, Ann Cooper and Robyn O'Brien talk better eating at TEDx Boulder

You could almost hear Whitney Houston singing "I believe that children are our future" playing in the background of TEDx in Boulder Saturday night, because according to the speakers, food issues start with kids. The night of lectures -- offered with the tagline "ideas worth spreading" -- was heavy on food, with three of the fourteen speakers discussing issues ranging from how restaurants can change the way we eat, to how school lunches need to lead the way from crap to food, to the horrifying repercussions of genetically-modified food (think increased allergies, cancer, premature death)..

Kimbal Musk, one-half of the team behind The Kitchen and The Kitchen [Next Door], told the audience that restaurateurs underestimate kids -- and that needs to change. "It just has to taste good," he says in an interview after the presentation. "The problem is that restaurants have assumed that kids don't want to eat anything other than chicken nuggets or fast-food burgers, but they do. They want to eat things that taste good."

The kale chips at the Kitchen [Next Door], for example, are fried in olive oil and salted, but kale is incredibly nutritious. While there's fat and sodium in the dish for sure, Musk doesn't think that should exclude it from being considered good for you. "There's nothing wrong with that," he says. "It just has to have nutrients." Besides, the fiber in kale makes kids fuller faster, so they don't eat as much.

It's essential for restaurants to make healthy food accessible, Musk adds, calling the Kitchen "not interesting" because the food is expensive, slow and not connected to kids. At the Kitchen [Next Door], he's attempted to fix that by making food that's fast and affordable, and installing things like a kid's play wall featuring veggies.

There were a lot of scary numbers about food-induced health problems tossed around: 46 percent of adults in the U.S. are obese; one in three kids born in 2000 will have diabetes; the number of peanut allergies in the country doubled between 1997 and 2002; and obesity costs America $450 billion each year in loss of productivity and medical expenses.

As chef Ann Cooper, the woman behind Boulder Valley School District's healthier lunches, puts it, "If you don't get pissed off, you won't do anything." To help get the audience pissed off, she projected a vintage ad from the USDA showing kids riding bikes with the caption, "DDT is good for you and me!"

While you can quibble over the approach, looking at a plate of gray chicken nuggets, french fries, fruit cocktail made with high fructose corn syrup and chocolate milk -- the most common lunch meal in America -- is powerful stuff. Yes, those are dinosaur-shaped nuggets and no, chicken do not naturally produce dinosaur-shaped nuggets.

Robyn O'Brien spoke on how big-agro got a modified E. coli strain approved to be used in cows because it helps them produce more milk -- but that, in turn, necessitated more antibiotics and potentially upped the number of kids with ADHD and food allergies.

And in case you thought that food politics were only for crazy, liberal hippies, O'Brien ended her speech with a story about not wanting to get in touch with the Kennedys, because they were Kennedys and she grew up in a conservative family. To remind the audience that you can be a conservative food activist, her final slide prominently featured a heart-shaped American flag. Go Team America!

The event at the University of Colorado's Macky Auditorium also included Kimya Dawson of Moldy Peaches fame; Phil Plait, an astronomer who managed to make asteroids into one of the evening's most entertaining segments; Leslie Dodson, an international journalist turned academic, and Joshua Scott Onysko, the man behind Pangea Organics.

As for Kimbal Musk's recent appearance on the cover of Entrepreneur, "It was very flattering, but not entirely true," he says. "The part that wasn't true was that we were the founding fathers of farm-to-table. There were many, many other people."