What's for Dinner?
In print and online, Stacy Fraser ’96 and Leslie Hatfield ’04 help us make food that’s healthy and delicious.
What's for dinner? The question causes guts to clench and brains to fry every night. We know what should be for dinner, right? Vegetables and lean proteins. Low-fat dairy products. Whole grains. Carbs! No carbs! Low-fat! Organic! Most people want to cook and eat healthy food, but in today’s oversaturated media landscape, what constitutes “healthy” seems to change daily.
“It’s easy to make things a little bit healthier,” says Stacy Fraser ’96. “Try not to focus on fad diets, eating crazes. You can eat anything in moderation. You just need to adjust your portion sizes.”
Fraser should know. She spends her days managing the Test Kitchen for EatingWell MediaGroup, and her recipes appear both in EatingWell magazine and on the immensely popular EatingWell.com website. Their motto, “Where good taste meets good health,” exemplifies one of the great dining dilemmas: how does a regular person, cooking in a regular kitchen, make healthy food taste delicious?
In Fraser’s aromatic kitchen, she and her team answer that question every day. They develop their own recipes or choose recipes developed by top chefs and food writers, and test each until it tastes wonderful, and, importantly, can be replicated at home. “We want to make it easy for people to be successful with our recipes, starting with the shopping experience,” Fraser explains. “A recipe’s success equals being able to easily follow the recipe, includes common ingredients, meets health standards and is delicious.”
Fraser studied ecological agriculture at Evergreen, and her work at EatingWell stems from a longstanding passion for growing plants. To her, healthy food means more than simply low-calorie or vitamin-rich. It also includes knowing where food comes from, and choosing fresh, seasonal foods that are available to most people.
Finding out about local healthful eating has ironically been made easier by the global reach of the Internet, where blogs and recipe sites offer countless ways to make wiser food choices. The EatingWell site garners more than 2 million unique visitors per month, and blogs with media partners like Yahoo! and The Huffington Post extend its reach. Combining health information with how-to recipes online simplifies putting theory into practice.
Helping readers understand the implications of our food systems on the health of the planet, and interconnected issues of water and energy, is the mission of the Ecocentric blog, edited by Leslie Hatfield ’04 and published by the GRACE Communications Foundation in New York City. The foundation’s initiatives include the “Eat Well Guide,” an online directory of farms and locally grown food outlets, and “The Meatrix,” a Webby Award-winning trilogy about factory farming. Hatfield has blogged about sustainable food since 2006, first with Sustainable Table, then with “The Green Fork,” which was The Eat Well Guide’s official blog before the foundation launched Ecocentric.
She has plenty of firsthand knowledge about food; she grew up in rural Centralia, Wash., and worked in restaurants for more than 12 years, which is where she started really thinking about her own consumption. The Internet, Hatfield explains, provides new ways to raise awareness about problems in the food system and find solutions to make it better.
“I get really excited about both the new media and food parts of my work,” she says. “It’s fun to be in this rapidly changing world of new media and be able to look at it from the outside and theorize about it and watch it evolve. There is a lot of democratic potential there.”
But Hatfield also sees the challenges in creating a real conversation around healthy, sustainable food online. “Not a whole lot of people get paid to blog full time. Only the people who can afford not to get paid are the people doing the talking, and that’s problematic,” she explains. “I’ve been in this extremely lucky position of getting paid by the GRACE Foundation, and gained a lot of readership through the Huffington Post, but I have lots of mixed feelings about this model. The sale of Huffington to AOL, with no compensation to those who’ve written for free all these years, left a bad taste in my mouth, as it did for so many other Huffington bloggers.”
Neither Hatfield nor Fraser set out to pursue careers in journalism. “I feel like it sort of found me,” Fraser says. After graduating from Evergreen, she moved to Vermont, the home state of her husband, Nate Carr ’97, where they started a small market garden and had a farm stand down the road from EatingWell’s editorial offices. “I needed to find something to supplement our income and was lucky enough to get a job testing recipes in the EatingWell Test Kitchen,” Fraser explains. In the late ’90s, the magazine closed down for a few years, and Fraser took a job as the kitchen manager of a Burlington breakfast and lunch hotspot. When EatingWell reopened in 2002, she began freelance recipe testing, and was named Test Kitchen manager in 2005.
Hatfield earned her M.A. in public communication from American University in Washington, D.C., and was hired as communications coordinator by the GRACE Foundation. She credits Evergreen with not only giving her the discipline to write, but to jump into working on the Web. “The Internet was happening when I was in college, but I wasn’t super involved and was a little scared of it,” she recalls. In her program with faculty members Joe Tougas and Helena Meyer-Knapp, one assignment was to create a website. “Evergreen gave me a strong social justice framework, which I find is missing from some of the dialogue we have about food, and faculty made me write like crazy,” she says. “But what was just as important was making us create that website. It made me less scared, so when the opportunity came to run the blog, I was ready.”
Convincing people to think more about what they eat and helping them find convenient, workable and delicious ways to eat well is a continuing challenge. “I really wish I knew what we need to do to convince Americans to eat more healthfully!” says Fraser. “I think if people can taste and enjoy real, healthy food and develop a real connection to where that food comes from, we might have a chance, but I know that’s a rosy outlook considering the huge health obstacles that we have before us.” At EatingWell, they try to simplify the rules for the average person. “Don’t eat too much, go for more fruits and vegetables, stop eating junk, make way for leaner meats, poultry and vegetable protein, go for more whole grains and eat sustainable fish twice a week,” Fraser says.
She and Hatfield know that for many people, the time it takes to find and prepare fresh foods is as important a factor as the costs. “People could buy vegetables and whole grains on a small budget, but you’re spending a major amount of time finding and preparing it,” Hatfield says. “This is a huge factor, especially for people struggling financially who are working long hours or two jobs.”
As demand for local foods grows, farmers have responded; many community-supported agriculture programs are becoming more affordable and flexible, and farmers’ markets are beginning to accept food stamps. Still, Hatfield says, national policies have a long way to go to ensure that the funding dedicated to agricultural subsidies encourages the sustainable, healthier farming of a larger variety of crops. “Processed foods are cheaper because our current systems are fundamentally unjust,” she explains. “We can vote with our forks, but policies need to change as well so that good food is not so much more expensive than crap.”
Getting people excited about new ways of eating and inspiring them to cook with fresh ingredients encourages demand for these changes. Because EatingWell recipes appear on several partner websites, Fraser notes, even people who weren’t looking for healthier recipes can find foods that appeal to their tastes. “When we can write a recipe that’s easy to follow, can be made quickly on a busy weeknight and celebrates seasonal, healthy food that people enjoy eating, I feel like I’m doing my job well,” she says. “Because of the Web’s reach, we can get in front of someone who goes to McDonald’s every day and help them think maybe, just for a minute, that there’s another alternative out there.”