Here's To Health Literacy, Served With A Dash Of Wit

September 04, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Stuart Nunnery could be the perfect guest host for "Saturday Night Live." The 42-year-old former educator and salesman wears silly chicken and carrot costumes and makes corny food jokes. He gives his annual State of the Onion address and considers the late Jim Henson and Walt Disney his heros.

But, despite his apparent love of the light side, he's convinced that America's lack of food literacy is no laughing matter.

"What I'm trying to do is bring visibility and attention to the idea that there is no food education in America that's working," Mr. Nunnery explained in a telephone interview from his Bucks County, Pa., home. "We need a more responsible food system, government and educational sector and, most importantly, we need responsible consumers demanding to be educated."

Instead, he said, we are giving consumers information about food that's confusing, if not indigestible. As a result, Americans are still eating diets that are too high in fat and cholesterol and ignoring the latest pronouncements from the New England Journal of Medicine because they are sure that tomorrow's study will reverse today's results.

His solution: He's taking his nutrition show on the road and the first stop is Baltimore. His "Foods & Company and Maryland: A Campaign for Food Literacy" will combine the comedy and satire of his comedy troupe with presentations from food experts during the Natural Products Expo East Friday evening at the Hyatt Inner Harbor. The program will cover agriculture, processing, advertising and the health and social issues of food and hunger in America. (See accompanying box.)

Maryland, he hopes, will be the prototype for a nationwide nutrition education effort -- a kind of traveling "town meeting" where consumers, government and educators can share ideas and come up with solutions. This week's program will be the first of many he plans to do throughout the state and eventually throughout the nation. Maryland was selected because he felt the natural food convention was an appropriate place to kick off the program, he has a lot of contacts in the state and it's close to the decision makers in Washington.

Financing comes mainly from the natural food business -- retailers and manufacturers, but he promotes no one food or brand name. He is also seeking government funding.

The Foods & Company approach is a "Sesame Street" for adults with a touch of "Saturday Night Live" and "60 Minutes." Typically, it goes like this:

On cooking: We are doing a lot less cooking than ever before, the experts tell us. Oh, we heat a little, we toast, we microwave. But if we boil anything, it's usually something in a pouch. Prepared and packaged foods continue to be the No. 1 selling foods. We eat more than a third of our meals away from home, and by the year 2000 that could be a half . . . And, if that's not enough proof, even the International Association of Cooking Professionals predicts a future in which cooking is something which few of us understand and heating something everyone does."

On tofu: "Recently consumers were asked if under pain of death they were required to eat two foods, which would they be willing to choose and which would they still refuse to eat -- liver or tofu? Perhaps it is not surprising that more Americans said they would rather eat liver than tofu. In fact, more Americans said they would rather die than eat tofu. Even though most admitted that they had never even tried tofu."

On food labeling: "Light can mean anything from calories to texture. No cholesterol does not mean it won't raise your cholesterol. There's low sodium (140 mg or less), very low sodium (35 mg or less), sodium-free or salt-free (5 mg or less). But unsalted or no salt added do not mean sodium-free. Got it? 'Y' words like fruity, nutty, chocolately or buttery usually mean that you will not find fruits, nuts, chocolate or butter in them. And here's my favorite -- fresh. It appears that anything can be called fresh so long as the consumer knows it's not fresh. How comforting."

Confusing food labeling is merely a symptom of a greater problem, according to Mr. Nunnery. Our real problems are the food community's inability to educate consumers, government inaction and consumers who fail to demand and use nutrition information properly.

"We are trying to raise the flag on the issue of food literacy," he said. "Why are we not food literate? What are the consequences of that? And what can we do about it? The campaign for food literacy needs a national push. Food issues are so varied and diverse that we need many ambassadors. Foods are regional. Agriculture is regional. We have to respect the diversity of the food system. We don't need apologists. We don't need spokesmen. We need educators. We need story tellers. We need people that can infuse the issue of foods with art and humor to create a new mythology about food."

Foods & Company comes to town

"Foods & Company and Maryland: A Campaign for Food Literacy" is coming to ballrooms A&B of the Hyatt Inner Harbor at 8 p.m. Friday.

The Foods & Company ensemble will present a series of humorous and provocative food issue skits described as reminiscent of the "Wizard of Oz" and "Alice in Wonderland" with a touch of "Saturday Night Live" and "Sesame Street."

Between segments, renowned food authorities will offer insight into the issues suggested by the sketches and suggest strategies to foster more responsible consumers.

Speakers include: Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine; Lisa Lefferts, staff toxicologist with the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Eric Rice, president of the Maryland Organic Food and Farming Assn.; Skip Kauffman, director of National Colonial Farm; and Jim Turner, a lawyer, consumer activist and author of "The Chemical Feast."

The event is free and open to the public.

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