Beet Reporter Puts Down the Pen, Ties on an Apron at Whole Foods

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I haven't posted in a few months. It's not that I've quit writing or gone on an epic vacation. I've been ordained a real-life Healthy Eating Specialist. This means that where I used to spend my days interviewing prominent health foodies and vegan athletes, or examining the latest nutritional news, I've now taken a much more hands-on, front-lines role in the "Good Food Revolution." This means wearing aprons and digging my latex-gloved hands in bowls full of organic watercress, bok choy, and other nutrient-dense vittles, explaining the value of the food while I serve it to crowds of nutritionally-curious "students."

Just as I did when I was a freelancer, I now wear many hats. Only now these are real hats, not figurative ones. To make sure none of my rambunctious blonde hairs jumps into the watercress bowl, and also to represent my new employer, my head's always clad in a cap or a beret that bears the Whole Foods logo.

Yes, I've been hired by Whole Foods Market's Coral Gables store. Each store has a Healthy Eating/Green Mission Specialist like me, an ambassador for the Health Starts Here program, which emphasizes four main criteria for what constitutes good food. They also happen to be the standards to which I held my own food before I got this gig.

They preach that food should be whole, or minimally processed, strong on plants, rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, with many nutrients per calorie, and finally that fats should come from healthy, whole-foods sources (avocados, nuts, seeds, and beans for example) and not extracted oils. The program advocates minimal animal protein in the diet and completely excludes dairy, refined sugars, refined grains or flours, and oils. Yes, even olive oil and coconut oils.

(For more on why, go here.) The Green Mission part of the job means the Specialist also helps to further each store's recycling, composting, community clean-up, and other green initiatives.

So what does a Healthy Eating Specialist actually do? Most of my efforts now are aimed at providing free healthy eating education to as many people as possible. I've done presentations at at the Miami Science Museum; talks and healthy recipe demos at Fairchild Tropical and Botanical Gardens, for example. I also prepare and sample three- to four-course meals in front of a live audience during my weekly healthy cooking classes in the store's Lifestyle Center.

A few short months ago, I had never prepared food for more than maybe eight people at a time. And yet in the first week of my career with Whole Foods, I was asked to prepare two healthy dishes for a party of 80. It was pretty weird to gather up 15 onions and 20-some cans of kidney beans for a single batch of Kenyan bean stew. And I couldn't find a pot big enough to fit Moroccan tapioca porridge for 80. But I mustered up the courage to ask my more experienced colleagues in the prepared foods department to share their equipment, and I was amazed that both courses turned out well.

I rely on my experience cooking healthful vegan meals for myself and others, as well as the wealth of recipes (many of which I adapt to meet the standards listed above) available in cookbooks, on the web, and through the Health Starts Here program. It doesn't hurt that I was once a full time public school teacher, I guess. In any case, a few months in, it feels like I've been doing it for years. My classes are always full and my students seem happy. Many of them tell me they're preparing my dishes at home and making changes in their lifestyles. It's a good fit. It feels good.

In my new role, I'm fighting the same battle I fought with my pen - helping people make better food choices - only now my go-to tool is a spatula. My new role as a health food advocate is ever evolving. My boss and I just started a series of weekly videos in which I offer healthy tips through the store's Facebook page, for example. But the mission is always the same - to inform, inspire, and facilitate changes in the way people in our community eat. I invite you to come to one of the Health Starts Here events at the store (see the calendar for info and instructions on signing up.) And we're always looking for new opportunities to spread the health; get in touch if your local organization or school has a need for free healthy eating education.

Follow Short Order on Facebook, on Twitter @Short_Order, and Instagram @ShortOrder.

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