7 Key ways to help kids be excited about healthy food

Nora LaTorre, CEO of Eat Real, discusses how solving America’s metabolic health crisis starts with our schools.

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Dr. Casey Means: Nora LaTorre is an incredible sustainability nutrition and food thought leader. She is the CEO of Eat Real, which is an award-winning system change organization. It exists to fix the problem that the next generation of youth in the US will be the first generation with shorter lifespans than their parents, due to preventable processed food-related diseases. Eat Real focuses on empowering school districts to make food delicious, nourishing, and regenerative through their K-through-12, evidence-based certification program.

Nora’s a nationally recognized speaker; a leader within the XPRISE Community Test Food and Nutrition Innovation Council; and a board member of the Californian government’s farm-to-school nonprofit, One Green Thing. She’s also an expert on awareness building, policy advocacy, and building movements that improve our world. I’m so excited to chat with her today about improving food systems and sustainable living, two topics that are so important to me—and to Levels. 

Eat Real’s Mission 

Nora LaTorre: As a female co-founder, I really admire everything you’re building, and all the awareness building that you’re doing as well.

Dr. Casey Means: Thank you. And vice versa. Can you describe the mission and the organization?

Nora LaTorre: Eat Real is a nonprofit whose goal is to help every child learn to love real food for the wellbeing of their lives, and then for themselves, and also for our planet. We see ourselves as a systems change nonprofit. We are doing policy and advocacy. We’re doing massive awareness building. And then we have an award-winning program where we make real food more accessible. 

We’re changing the game in school, making it so that schools can provide the best, most culturally relevant, delicious, nutritious meal of a child’s day. Sometimes, it can be 30 to a 100% of the kids’ calories. We’re really focused on empowering schools and school leaders to transform food in America. That’s the core of what we do.

Dr. Casey Means: That’s incredible—and needed. We have a lot of opportunity with school lunches. I have heard people at your organization talk about how schools are kind of the biggest restaurant chain in America, in a sense. What does that mean? What is the landscape of the school lunch system, and what are the challenges we’re facing today?

Nora LaTorre: Back in 2019, when we decided to go all in on schools, we asked, “How do we do the most good as a nonprofit? How can we have a catalytic impact? How do we improve the health of the planet and fix the health crisis of our children?” 

When we looked at all the different systems we could affect, what really stood out was the scale of our school system. Schools are the largest restaurant chain in America. They serve five billion meals a year. If you think about it, there’s one in almost every community, in every town. They’re serving a high volume, and they’re serving our most important, most vulnerable population: our children. If you can help people develop healthy habits, you want to start that early. What better platform to do that than at school?

Schools are the largest restaurant chain in America. They serve five billion meals a year. They’re serving a high volume, and they’re serving our most important, most vulnerable population: our children.

Dr. Casey Means: Did you say five billion meals are served nationally per year in schools?

Nora LaTorre: Five billion. Our program has had really fast growth. We’ve gone from 50 to 500 schools in three years. Last year, we had over 400% impact growth. And this year, we’re on track to help make at least 120 million meals healthier and more accessible to students. That’s with a small and mighty nonprofit like ourselves. 

One hundred and twenty million—that’s a huge amount of impact. We still have billions of meals to go. But we’re going to get there. If we were to pick one place within our food system and our health model to make change, to really provide upstream health solutions, our schools are what we think is the best innovation platform in America.

A Childhood Metabolic Health Crisis

Dr. Casey Means: What is the current landscape of school lunches? What are kids being served? Why is there even the need for something like Eat Real? 

Nora LaTorre: Today, about 67% of a child’s calories are ultra-processed. We’re in a children’s health crisis, and we’re not ringing the bell loudly enough. I was polling JAMA: since 2001, Type 2 diabetes, a processed food-related disease, is up 95% in children in roughly 20 years.

When we look at other markers, we’re seeing major causes for concern in terms of the state of children’s health. I don’t know if you had school lunch growing up. But in some places, it hasn’t changed much since I had school lunch. In some places, though, it really has. It can be a delicious, amazing meal. Right now, school lunches are very time-pressed. You only have 20 minutes, maybe, for school lunch. Budgets are also really constrained.

Today, about 67% of a child’s calories are ultra-processed. We’re in a children’s health crisis, and we’re not ringing the bell loudly enough.

It’s estimated to require about $1.50 per meal on food spend, a very small margin, to make it super nutrient-dense and sustainable, but it is possible. Thirty million kids depend on school meals for their nutrition. During the pandemic, the Universal Free Meals Act was passed, which was a lifeline for America and for American families. Now, any kid can get a meal without stigma, school lunch shaming, et cetera, increasing participation. More children are starting to depend on school meals. It’s becoming an even more powerful platform to create nutrition security and fight food insecurity and hunger in America. 

School lunches are one of the most important safety nets in our country. I just polled some food bank data. It showed that for two months in a row, they’ve been seeing upticks in people going to the food bank, about 20% month over month.

We know there’s a global food supply chain issue right now. Things are probably going to get worse before they get better. We really need to be doubling down on investing in school lunches and valuing how important they are to keeping our children safe.

Dr. Casey Means: It’s really astounding. We’ve got childhood obesity rates increasing at alarming rates; the rate of obesity in kids doubled in COVID. We’re also finding that in some populations, a quarter of adolescents have prediabetes, a condition we used to think only affected adults. 

Fatty liver disease in kids is on the rise. These are food-related diseases, and five billion meals are going out to kids from schools. It really does feel like there is a profound opportunity to link this metabolic disease epidemic in children with a positive ability to impact this through the food delivery system already in place. These are food-related diseases, and five billion meals are going out to kids from schools. It really does feel like there is a profound opportunity to link this metabolic disease epidemic in children with a positive ability to impact this through the food delivery system already in place.

It’s amazing Eat Real is at the intersection of these two crises. Paint a picture for us of when Eat Real gets involved. What does that look like with the school? And how do you help schools make transitions to healthier offerings?

Nora LaTorre: We were founded by some leading doctors, pediatricians, and public health advocates who were passionate about having an integrated approach to human and planet health. They were passionate about getting to the root cause. In the doctor’s office, they saw that kids were getting sicker. They said, “How do we create upstream solutions?” They truly believe that real food is medicine. 

Some of the early supporters of our nonprofit were passionate about its potential to be an economic solution. When $3.8 trillion is spent on healthcare, which is actually sick care, and over 75% of that has to do with processed food-related diseases, that’s expensive. We’re treating disease largely with pills and medical interventions. We’re putting $3.8 trillion a year into that, versus spending billions of dollars on healthy food for kids so that they don’t develop those metabolic diseases in the first place. That was the motivation of looking at, “How do we upstream health solutions and give kids access to food as medicine early on so that then they can expand their lifespans?”

We saw that, pre-COVID, lifespan was on the decline. The largest drivers were processed food-related diseases. We saw millennials experiencing health shock. That’s why I got involved. They’re the first generation in US history on track to have shorter lifespans than their parents. We felt you can best stop that by making sure people have access to and knowledge of real food early on. Those were some of the biggest reasons for why we wanted to do what we do. 

Changing America’s Biggest Restaurant Chain

Dr. Casey Means: It’s amazing. We’re learning that the reactive nature of our healthcare system is an abject failure. The more money we’ve dumped into the healthcare system, the worse outcomes we are getting. In any other business or industry, if that were the case, we would radically be changing it. 

But healthcare somehow falls out of the normal system’s expectations. As a physician, it’s shocking to me because you’d think that, as physicians or practitioners, the goal is to keep people healthy or help people become healthy. But every year, life expectancy is going down, and our chronic disease epidemics are exploding. We need to go back to the drawing board. Something’s not working. We’re not focusing on food, and we’re not focusing upstream on what actually goes into the body to build it up and generate health.

It’s incredible to hear how you and this team of founders and advisors are approaching this through that lens. I published an article last year about the USDA’s updated school lunch guidelines. They were not good. They were moving in the wrong direction. Under the guise of this concept of increased flexibility for schools and for students, they basically allowed for a lot more processing and packaged foods to come into the system. 

We’re all up against some large, entrenched forces with economic incentives to push processed food. We’ve got policy. We’ve got school boards. We’ve got the constraints of funding, budgeting, and resources. How does Eat Real insert yourself into that challenging milieu?

Nora LaTorre: We think of the last 50 years as a processed food failed experiment. It didn’t work. Let’s all just acknowledge it. And then let’s say, “How do we do things differently, starting now?” 

Processed food has gone up. Sugar consumption has gone up. Disease has gone up. Climate change has accelerated. We have a three-pronged approach: We do policy, advocacy, and awareness building. Then we have a core program where we dive into communities to transform the menu in the largest restaurant in America, public schools. 

When we roll up our sleeves in a community, it is game-changing. Now, school lunches are my favorite meal of the year. It is possible.

I dream of the heirloom beans that I had at Vacaville Unified, for example, or the organic salad being grown in Morgan Hill Unified or the plant-forward cuisine offered in Mount Diablo Unified. There are amazing, delicious school lunches being served. 

We have a science-based approach involving a science-based sustainability nutrition standard, a very integrated approach. We stand next to the food service directors, who really are our champions of change. During the pandemic, you probably heard about school lunch heroes. Well, food service directors are the buyers of the food for their school districts. We believe that these individuals—and there are many of them around the country who are total visionaries—are the ones who are the decision-makers and that they are the closest to their students. They’re listening to what they need and want. They have the ability to enroll their school board, their superintendents, the parents—everyone—to transform the menu. First, we arm them with partnership.

We try to understand, “What are their goals? What are their visions for their program? What do they see today?” Then we actually assess them. We have independent registered dieticians who assess the school district on our rigorous, science-based nutrition and sustainability standards. We’ll look at their menu. We’ll look at where they’re sourcing from. We’ll look at what oils they’re using. We’ll look at how much sugar is in things. We’ll look at how local it is, who their suppliers are. 

Then we give them a report. It’s usually at least 14 pages, a report card. We say, “Here’s where you’re rocking it. And here are your opportunities.” Then we decide with them what the action plan is, and we help them create it. It’s not us telling them what to do. It’s them saying, “I know my constraints. I know my challenges. I know the opportunities. I know my students. I know my suppliers. Here’s where I want to start.”

Then we help them meet with suppliers, connect with new suppliers, meet with other school districts and tour their kitchens, or hear about how they’re getting chefs. We go through a multi-year process with them, and then we reassess after they’ve made the changes, to see if they can get Eat Real-certified.

Kids, Community, and a Holistic Approach to Food

Dr. Casey Means: It’s optimistic to hear. It’s easy to stand back and demonize everything, and think, “It’s so bad across the board, and it’s all industry-entrenched.” You are down on the ground with the people who have great intentions. You are working with them to empower visionary leaders to actually achieve their mission. It’s such a good message to hear because it can be easy to be pessimistic about what’s happening in schools and in school lunches, and in the processed food ecosystem. 

There’s pessimism around the idea that “Kids won’t eat healthy foods. Kids won’t eat vegetables. Kids are so picky.” But you’ve probably seen a lot more about kids and diet than most people. What are some stories that have been particularly meaningful to you of where change is actually possible?

Nora LaTorre: Kids are a tough crowd. As a mom of two, I know. Partly why school lunch is my favorite is because I get to eat lunch with kids and see what lights them up. Our whole goal is to help kids learn to love real food. When I see them come alive with food, I get really, really inspired. But it is hard. They’re tough critics. It can take many times of exposure. It can take 15 times of trying something new to develop your taste buds and palate for it. 

We’ll see school districts that say, “I’m offering bok choy today, but I’m also going to offer it every week for the next few weeks. We’re going to serve it in different ways, and the kids are going to try it.” They’re curious about it, maybe try some of it, and then see what their friends are doing. It’s really about exposure, I think. But what’s cool is that we have such a foodie culture in the United States and globally.

With the rise of the Food Network, we have rising top chefs at schools. It feels like every kid is a top chef at this point. It’s fun to watch them get passionate about food. Or, if you look at what is going viral on TikTok, food is something so personal and something we interact with every day. It can be fun. 

The kids start lighting up over it when they get a plant-based burger or a regenerative grass-fed burger that’s cooked from scratch. They have the whole sensory experience. They smell it. They know they have a cool new chef who’s doing cool things. They’re going through the school lunch line, and maybe music is playing. Then they get to bite into that delicious meal that was lovingly prepared for them. They say, “This burger is the bomb.” That’s a quote from a third-grader. That was honestly what he thought. Then you see them really enjoying it and having fun. It’s a really positive part of their day.

When you ask them about it and how it helps in the classroom, they’ll say, “I feel better. I don’t have a tummy ache.” It really matters to them, and it gives them a boost. It’s similar to good books or working breaks on a school bus. School lunches are key to a kid having a successful, happy day at school and not being in the doctor’s or nurse’s office. 

It’s similar to good books or working breaks on a school bus. School lunches are key to a kid having a successful, happy day at school and not being in the doctor’s or nurse’s office. 

Seeing the kids light up and love it is my favorite. There are so many other wins happening. I was just at one of our school partners, Morgan Hill Unified. They have an AI-powered hydroponic container ship garden. They are located in drought-stricken California, and they want to grow an entire organic salad for their students in these container ships. They use five gallons of water—about one shower’s worth. It’s all grown within ten miles of the schools. Then it’s harvested. Within 24 hours, it’s served to students. 

They just hired Farmer Max, one of my favorite people. He’s on TikTok. He loves lettuce. He’s graduated from that high school. Now, he’s growing lettuce for the students. That’s just one example of how they’re raising the bar. Having a lead farmer with a farm on campus growing a huge portion of the menus, that is farm-to-table. Name the best restaurant in the United States, and they’re trying to do it. There are tons of examples like that happening throughout the country.

Dr. Casey Means: One of the takeaways I’m hearing is that you really have to understand the kids’ psychology to make this work. There’s social pressure. There’s hesitancy.  Those actionable takeaways of, “This is how you get a kid to get excited about food,” are super valuable. They might eat something or be more prone to eat something if it’s going viral on TikTok or if there’s great music playing and the chef is really fun and engaging about it. 

You’re also seeing this type of body awareness come into it, where kids are reporting that they feel better after having this healthier food. This can all be useful to parents, too, of how to get their kids on board and invested in the process. Then, of course, the hydroponic farm, which is so cool, has got to light kids up as well in terms of its novelty and how interesting it is.

Nora LaTorre: Totally. That same school has these mini farms called Fork Farms inside. They’re in science classrooms and in the lunchroom. 

It was pajama day. It was the cutest thing ever. All the kids went through the school salad bar line. In Spanish and English, it had the types of vegetables, what they were, and information about their colors. Sometimes, we see them talk about vitamins or where they’re from. Sometimes they mix in stuff from the school garden, which then the kids are really proud of. 

But then these first-graders went back and sat down, and then they opened up these mini pop-up farms, or fridge farms, where you can open it, and, in this case, there’s lettuce growing. The food service director, Micahel, took it out. He said, “Who wants to try this?” No hand went up. And at first, they were hesitant because they had pulled out this lettuce with the roots. They’ve probably only seen lettuce leaves.

Then all of a sudden, one kid raised their hand, and they tried it. Then all the other kids looked at them. After that one kid, they were all trying it. Every single hand shot up, and we ate through all the lettuce together. They were so pumped about this lettuce. 

Make it communal; make it about community, whether it’s at school or at home. The lunchroom can be the best classroom in America. It needs to be because it can solve our greatest challenges. It can solve climate change, and it can solve our health pandemic. It can help pandemic-proof us in the future. We think it’s an important call to action. We need to ask, “How do we redesign our food system with our children at the center and use schools as a platform to start?”

Dr. Casey Means: I love that it takes just one to make it cool. Because you’re on the ground, you’re a lot closer to kids. Do you see kids taking an interest in the health or environmental side of this? Or is it more the social aspect that you feel is the driver? 

Nora LaTorre: Regarding health, we’re starting to. When you get the PE teachers involved, from a sports and performance perspective, 100% yes. When we partner with different organizations that are doing that more, or design curriculum that way, or get sports leaders involved, that has been really interesting. We have a new professional soccer player getting involved in the movement. 

Kids understand that food can fuel them to feel and perform better, especially in sports. It’s a big motivator. That might be the first “aha.” We’re starting to see kids put it together. Kids are wicked smart from early on. My threenager puts it together. 

Dr. Casey Means: That’s great to hear. Maybe it’s not about avoiding prediabetes that they care about, but “Is it going to make them better on the basketball court?” Speak their language: “Food can do this for you.” 

Regenerative, Organic Farming Benefits the Body and Planet

Dr. Casey Means: Can you speak to the climate side of this, and how the farming and agriculture sides fit into your mission? 

Nora LaTorre: In terms of health, we talked about how processed food-related disease is the number-one driver of shortened health span and lifespan. It’s obvious why we focus there, and why our solution attacks that problem. 

From a climate perspective, less than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture. When we look at other areas of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions, there’s more momentum. There’s more acceleration in terms of electrification. A lot of people think food is under-invested in. Today, about 2% of philanthropic global giving goes to fighting climate change. Generally, climate change is underfunded. 

Kids care. Climate anxiety is on the rise, and “climate anxiety” became a word in the dictionary. Kids have the Greta Effect. They want to feel like they’re doing something and that they’re saving the planet. They’re actually stressed out and really worried about it. 

One of the best ways they can take action is through their food. Fixing school lunch and breakfast, making that more climate-smart, gives them a way to take action every single day. When it comes to climate change, greenhouse gas emissions are a crucial component, But with food, we have the power to individually take action and advocate for changing our food system so that everyone has access to healthy regenerative options. 

There are many ways. Paul Hawken, a renowned environmentalist, just gave us a quote of support for our nonprofit and for all the work we’re doing within climate change. He believes it is about regeneration. When you look at, “How do we not just sustain our planet as is, because it’s not healthy right now?” We actually need to regenerate and heal our planet. We can do that through the soil and the food that’s grown. The majority of food is grown in soil, which can sequester carbon and fight climate change. It’s literally a climate solution right beneath our feet. It’s so powerful.

National Geographic just did a piece about how by creating healthier soil and microbes in the soil, it creates more nutrient density in the food you’re growing. Our food is one of the most powerful climate solutions out there. It’s one we interact with many times a day.

Dr. Casey Means: Absolutely. Even if you’re making that incredible effort to eat the whole foods and the fruits and vegetables, the beans and legumes, and the nuts and seeds, if you are eating them out of conventional soil that has been processed and damaged through modern farming practices, you’re getting way less bang for your buck. 

Nora LaTorre: Dr. Bojana Jankovic, who’s on our philanthropic leadership board, said, “Not only are you getting less nutrient-dense ingredients, but with conventional methods, you are unknowingly getting a side of pesticides.” Now, serving my kids’ food, I’m imagining an invisible side of pesticides if, for some reason we couldn’t buy organic or regenerative that day. That one made me sick to my stomach.

Dr. Casey Means: Fewer nutrients with a side of pesticides, which can be neurotoxic and can disrupt our microbiome. It’s unbelievable.

Nora LaTorre: Served right to our kids.

Dr. Casey Means: And we wonder why we have this monumentally rising chronic disease epidemic. We think that all these kids just need pills to fix these things. I think we’re both on the same page about working to change that kind of narrative. 

How is Eat Real involved with the regenerative organic agriculture movement, and how do you interact with farms? 

Nora LaTorre: When we look at top climate solutions within our food system and within schools, what usually rises to the top is reduced food waste. Forty percent of food is wasted. At home, this is important. Everyone can try to reduce food waste at home. 

But at schools, which are institutions and so huge in terms of volume, it’s massive. They can source imperfect produce. They can make the food delicious so that the kids eat as much as possible of that serving. Don’t put it in the trash. Instead, put it in a compost bin and have that compost go back to the school garden or to the farmer. Have it be a more closed loop. Reducing food waste is huge. Our program supports that. 

Adding more plant-based options, in general, is important. One study suggested that only about 7% of adolescents got the daily recommended amount of fruits, while only 2% got the recommended amount of vegetables. We’re not getting enough plants in general. We need to be feeding ourselves plants and feeding our microbiome plants—and more of them. That’s more salad bars, more plant-powered options, et cetera. That’s more fruits and vegetables, that bok choy or those beans. We want to look at our plate and have as much as possible be plant-powered. 

Those are two major environmental changes. We also encourage people to know your farmer, source locally when possible, source seasonally, and source regenerative. Regenerative organic is kind of a hot term now. But it’s really important because regenerative organic is the type of farming where they can sequester the most carbon. When you look at types of farming, it is the most powerful in terms of mitigating climate change.

We help schools source regenerative, certified, and transitioning and regenerative farms that integrate no-till practices. We were just on a regenerative farm for a regenerative farm summit. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, first partner of California, who’s an incredible supporter of the farm-to-school movement, was on the farm with us. Executives from the California Department of Food and Agriculture were there. Top Chef winner, David Tu, who’s Chef Tu one of the most inspiring people ever, was on the farm with us. 

We are a national nonprofit, but it was a California Summit, and we had school leaders from across California who represented 130 million of buying power, 400 schools, 275,000 students. They’re starting to buy more regenerative eggs. They tell me, “I put in an order here. My June menu has regenerative products on it.”

We’re also working one-on-one with schools. We’re trying to have summits where we do farm tours and provide education. We just did this regenerative farm tour. Next, we could do a food waste tour, and learn about compost. We could do a plant-based session. We are all about these platforms of education to inspire the leaders—anyone from government officials to policy makers to decision makers at schools, to families, students, and chefs.

Dr. Casey Means: What was that purchasing power number you mentioned?

Nora LaTorre: One hundred and thirty million dollars a year of purchasing power.

Dr. Casey Means: Who are those people? What group is making these decisions?

Nora LaTorre: There are a lot of key stakeholders involved in a community. The food service director or the nutrition director wears a cape. They are the champions. On Teacher Appreciation day, write your food service director or nutrition director a note. Get to know them, thank them. They are the buyers. Then they usually get the chief business officer, the superintendent, the school board, and the PTA. They work with a lot of other people, but they are the change agents in our model.

A Scalable Solution

Dr. Casey Means: This sounds expensive. If there’s only a dollar and change per student per day, and they have to meet budgets, and also have to meet certain USDA requirements for what goes into the food, how will this work for everyone?

Nora LaTorre: Their jobs are complicated, and they’re navigating all those things you just mentioned. What’s really exciting is that we are collecting a lot of data that shows that there’s a business case for real food, and that it’s actually a better business model to invest in real, from-scratch, delicious, culturally relevant, sustainable food versus processed food. 

At an individual school district level, they’re tasked with being profit centers, which I think is strange. The teachers aren’t tasked with making money off of their classrooms. Our lunchroom should be an investment; it is critically important to our kids. But they are tasked with being profit centers, or at least breaking even. If they’re profit centers, they take that investment, and they can do things like build a kitchen or warehouse, or hire another chef, or Farmer Max. The business case is that as they have invested in real food and raised the bar through our program, their customers, students, and parents. Parents who support their kids eat the lunch. They want to participate.

They look at something called participation. As schools invest in real food, their participation numbers go up. Their reimbursement goes up. They’re able to upscale some of their staff and create efficiency. They engage their staff, who get higher wages as well. But they’re able to invest in their food program, and see overall revenue and profit increase. There is a case for business. That’s why we have a multi-year waitlist for our program. School food service directors are telling their friends, “This works.” 

On a more macro level, there are multiple costs of food analysis studies and meta studies. One showed that for every dollar invested in school meals, there’s $2 of benefits. That can reduce poverty because it offers a safety net to families, and also lowers healthcare spending. That is a really strong ROI in terms of it being an investment. And that’s not even talking about the happier and healthier kid who’s able to focus, learn, grow, and thrive.

Dr. Casey Means: To hear about the emerging data demonstrating that this can work for everyone gives me so much hope that this could really scale. I’m impressed by the work you’re doing to figure out this information and work with all the key stakeholders, and then to make sure people know that it’s going to align with their different priorities. 

Food as Medicine

Dr. Casey Means: I’ve been reading a lot recently about the rates of ADHD and attention disorders on the rise. There’s emerging evidence that there’s a relationship between some of these conditions and dietary quality, and that the microbiome might be a link. Can you break down your take on this relationship and how Eat Real is triangulating gut function, student health, metabolic and mental health, and better farming and sourcing practices?

Nora LaTorre: There’s a lot of early evidence. I’ve been fascinated by all the science coming out around the gut-brain connection. I grew up thinking, “There’s your brain, and there’s your gut. And they’re two separate things.” We’re seeing that it’s an interconnected highway, and that in a lot of ways, our guts are our second brain. Maybe it’s all part of one brain, and then they think together. There’s so that we still don’t know or understand. 

I read my daughter The Magic School Bus. But I want to take a magic school bus ride through my whole body to see the connections between the brain and the gut. A Nature study talked about the BGM, brain-gut microbiome. It’s not your gut biome; it’s the brain-gut microbiome. As someone who’s really passionate about it, the idea of this brain-gut microbiome as one interconnected super highway system is super interesting. 

The Nature piece analyzed numerous studies talking about how there’s early evidence that dietary interventions can help solve some of the conditions we usually don’t associate with the gut, ones we think of as psychiatric conditions, brain disorders, et cetera. 

Early evidence suggests that nutrition can be an intervention. Let’s make nutrition an intervention as early as possible, before kids need a prescription. When anyone sees a therapist, how can they also be talking about their sleep and their diet—and right away so that it can be a holistic intervention?

Let’s make nutrition an intervention as early as possible, before kids need a prescription.

I see parents and friends worried about the rise of depression, especially as the pandemic intensified that. Even the surgeon general expressed worry about the mental health of our kids. We should be doing everything we can to try to solve this. 

The early indications are that dietary and nutrition can be an intervention for depression, anxiety, autism. These are things that parents are super worried about right now, and are hyper vigilant and aware of. If we can start to conduct more research, and have more tools, like Levels, then we can start to have a stronger approach to these concerns that are connected to our gut and brain health.

Dr. Casey Means: It’s tragic to think about the suffering that’s happening and that the pandemic accelerated. For those of us who are deep in this space about food as medicine, thinking about things like the microbiome and its impact on the brain, it just seems like a no-brainer: If we can get more nutrients to kids’ bodies and brains, it will have multifarious, positive effects on day-to-day performance, but also potentially on mental health issues. It’s one of the levers we can pull. It’s not the only one. There are many other things also involved, but it’s so foundational. 

This is what our bodies are built out of: food. Food is also what the microbiome eats to thrive, propagate, and do its work, which is so important to our brain. It’s exciting that the scientific research on the brain-gut microbiome is coinciding with the regenerative agriculture movement and also a better understanding, more generally, of food as medicine.

I focus on systems, biology, and medicine. What are the links and the root causes between lots of diseases? This is the systems-based approach to global problems—not just body problems, but global problems. It’s the way we’ve got to be thinking, so we stop playing whack-a-mole with all these different epidemics. What’s going to help all of them? Real food. It feels like Eat Real is in the middle of that, and it’s amazing.

Nora LaTorre: It’s definitely my dream job. Every day, I feel excited to work. We have a scalable solution. Then we get into the awareness building. We can come together, whether it’s through conversations like this or through different campaigns with brands, individuals, thought leaders, influencers. Then the policy and the advocacy shift. 

We’re also, personally, getting more involved. People didn’t think much about processed-food-related disease, or metabolic health. Doctors were talking about it, but other people weren’t. That’s the silver lining of COVID. We have never been more aware of our health. We’ve also never felt less in control, I think. How do we take this moment of awareness, and help people take easy actions and then systemic actions to make changes?

The Need for Systemic Change

Dr. Casey Means: I love all Rob Lustig’s books, and Metabolical talks about this a lot. Mark Hyman’s book, Food Fix, goes into a lot of detail about these systems-level issues and how the processed food industry is intent on getting their product in front of kids. And school is one of their mechanisms. 

If you walk through any sort of conventional grocery store, it is a direct conduit of processed food to people. It has the most appealing packaging and the cheapest prices because it’s supported by the farm bills and it’s partially subsidized. We’re up against so much. There are some issues within the USDA in terms of misaligned interests. I’ve written about the school lunch changes that happened a year or two ago. They recently ignored their scientific advisory board’s advice about reducing the total sugar consumption per day, and kept it at a higher percentage, even though the board of medical reviewers said not to do that. 

Nora LaTorre: There are no sugar standards in schools. One ounce is four times the amount of sugar kids are supposed to get in the entire day. They can get that just in breakfast.

Dr. Casey Means: How are we going to ultimately change things on the biggest levels, like influencing the processed food industry, making it work for them, too, to get on board with this? How do we work together to make this work without fighting them the whole time? 

Nora LaTorre: On an individual level, every purchase matters. Every bite matters. If you can have those reflect your values whenever possible and be part of the solution, the business response to that will be super powerful. I watched it with the fair trade movement I helped grow from niche to mass. When we focused on inspiring consumers, they would first say, “What’s fair trade, free trade?” Then they eventually said, “No, I need fair trade coffee. That’s actually a part of my value as a consumer.” 

It started to be table stakes for any company. They needed to up their bar. If you have a favorite product, write to them, post on social media, get active, get involved, and then put halos around your regenerative farmer. Use the tools that you have. Have that be part of your messaging as an individual. Businesses will respond to consumer demand. I’ve seen it happen.

There is a lot of money and vested interest in keeping things status quo and keeping this ship hurting our kids and our planet going in the same direction. To right that ship, we need to be organized and collaborative. We believe in building coalitions. Our nonprofit will partner with 200 other nonprofits to help support Universal Free Meals, for example. 

There are many nonprofits coming together to think about the Farm Bill, which is renewed every five years. Individuals can do things, yes, but we can all come together as nonprofits, as people who want to join campaigns and advocate for innovation on the Farm Bill. It was founded during the Dust Bowl, but we have similar issues we did then in terms of environmental collapse, economic challenges, and health challenges. 

The Farm Bill is supposed to be a solution to that. It funds SNAP, nutrition assistance, and commodity subsidies. Right now, we’re subsidizing corn, sugar, wheat, soy—things that contribute to processed food-related disease. In 2011, the number-one item it sponsored in SNAP was corn syrup-based soda. Right now, the Farm Bill is funding conventional mono-crop agriculture versus all the things we were just talking about. 

It hasn’t quite caught up to what consumers and students are demanding. There’s an opportunity to innovate. Our legislators can make changes. It needs to be a top priority and something people think about as they’re voting.

Dr. Casey Means: I read a report on where the funding’s going. I recall that $31 billion was going toward commodity crop subsidies, disease-promoting foods. These are not soybeans that are going to edamame in the frozen section. They’re going toward processed seed oils and other unhealthy things. A very small portion of the farm bill carves out funding for horticulture: vegetables, legumes, nuts, and the like.

Nora LaTorre: And specialty crops, too. If you look at the pie chart, about 7% goes to conservation. 

Dr. Casey Means: The pie chart is a joke. Most of the pie chart should be fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, spices—things that will make us healthy. It seems like a no-brainer. How do people speak up to tell their legislators that they want this to happen? Are there organizations that can help guide people to make that type of change? 

Nora LaTorre: SNAP is super important. It’s crucial that we fund nutrition assistance because that is such a safety net in America. How do you make it so that soda isn’t the number-one purchased product? 

There are really cool programs, like Double Up Food Bucks that Wholesome Wave and others are promoting, where if you are using SNAP dollars, you can get $2 for every dollar spent on fruits and veggies. There are some cool incentives and tests that can be scaled and incorporated into the Farm Bill so that it prioritizes more plants and more nutrient density, more of the things that are going to heal people and the planet. 

What else is there? How can more funding and resources go toward regenerative practices? How does more go toward supporting a lot of diverse stakeholders and farmers, as well as new training and education?

We haven’t been posting that much yet about how people can get involved, but we will be. People can go to eatreal.org and check out our newsletter. We’ll be sharing some really good emerging coalitions. We will also be sharing other coalitions people can learn more about.

Dr. Casey Means: You co-authored with Rob Lustig, one of our Levels advisors—and one of my personal heroes—this incredible PDF report on the Eat Real website about how processed food-related diseases are directly contributing to the majority of underlying conditions that lead to worse COVID outcomes. How do you think real food could change the way we face COVID and any future pandemics?

Nora LaTorre: How do we pandemic-proof our society? When we published this, vaccines weren’t even available yet. The government was encouraging different interventions, and it wasn’t mentioning nutrition. We felt that was a dangerous and lethal omission.

We wanted to say that real food has the power to help people have functioning immune systems so that, if exposed to COVID, they can have a normal immune response. After a lot of data analysis, we found that in the beginning of COVID, most New York deaths had at least one comorbidity, many of which were processed food-related diseases. We also saw that if someone had their insulin spiked, it created more coding for the virus to enter cells; it held the door open for the virus. It actually increased insulin. 

Even short-term exposure to processed food caused an increase in severity, complications, hospitalizations, and death. What we’re eating and how we’re fueling ourselves affects COVID impacts us. That has to do with what we have access to. Let’s make sure that people have access to healthy meals wherever they are so that we can have a strong, resilient society. 

Dr. Casey Means: This was one of the most disturbing things to me about the entire pandemic. It almost became controversial to talk about food as something we could do to improve our resilience against the virus. It’s almost as if people considered some of that pseudoscience because it wasn’t coming from the CDC. 

Even though there were hundreds of scientific papers showing links between nutrition and disease outcomes, saying that if you replace your processed food intake with real food, you may have better COVID outcomes was controversial. I saw people getting slammed about this on social media. It is the most perplexing thing.

This is what keeps me up at night. How do you connect these dots for people so that this is fairly obvious? If processed food is leading to these diseases, and these diseases are worsening our COVID outcomes, and we understand a lot of the scientific mechanisms of why these comorbidities lead to worse COVID outcomes, let’s try and clean up these issues by using food as a way to reverse them.

Nora LaTorre: It’s hard. It’s complicated. It’s not the individual; this is a systemic issue. A UCSF study showed that if you switch to real food and get off processed food, within ten days, you can transform your metabolic health; within ten days, you can have a better functioning immune system. We can make ourselves, our society, and our communities more resilient against this current spike. 

It’s critical that we start to think about it now and that we take it seriously. I think a lot about how food companies and the pharmaceutical and other established industries make nutrition really confusing. That’s why I love the concept of Levels. As people gain insight, they’re able to take more action. This is becoming personal for people. The pandemic has affected everybody.

People are starting to see processed food-related diseases impact their friends and families at an accelerated rate. Big Pharma and Big Ag have made it confusing to us. We talk a lot about how we can rename diabetes. Let’s just call it processed food disease. By calling it diabetes, we’re not talking about how processed food and sugar can feed cancer. People don’t know. 

This stuff is made confusing on purpose, so we keep doing these things. How do we break it down for people? I’m still learning, and I’m still asking a lot of questions. How do we get the data and information and make it really clear that real food is one of the brightest solutions for healing ourselves, our families, and the world?

Dr. Casey Means: Amen. Like you said, it’s all about building coalitions and awareness. I’m happy we’re having these conversations. 

Make Nourishment Exciting

Dr. Casey Means: I was reading about this rainbow taco challenge you guys did with students. Can you talk about this challenge and how kids respond to fun, interactive food experiences?

Nora LaTorre: Make it fun. Turn on the music. Make it colorful and do it together, even if for just a couple meals a week. Whether it’s in a school lunch setting or at home, food makes us all become more alive. Have fun with it, and make it a priority. It can be really powerful. 

We do different challenges. If people follow us @eatrealcertified on social media, you’ll be invited to partake. We partnered with the incredible team at IDEO at the beginning of the pandemic. 

We designed a rainbow taco challenge that went totally viral. It had reached 20 million people. People were at home, and they wanted to take control of their health. They were looking for fun things to do. 

It was mostly on Instagram, but TikTok was also on the rise at that point. We got top chefs, athletes, and influencers, and tons of students and parents, involved. 

It was simple. We said, “Let’s cook colorfully together. Let’s cook colorful foods, using as many different vegetables as possible, and then challenge your friends.” We saved it on our Instagram. People could go and check it out if they wanted some food inspiration. We still make rainbow tacos at my house a lot.

We were also trying to get extra meals to families. We did it as a fundraiser. We’ve also done other challenges. We did a seven-day, no-added-sugar challenge with all the YMCs of California. That was awesome. We’ll be doing some more fun challenges soon.

Dr. Casey Means: It brings up so many memories for me. Now, having a lot of friends with young children, I’m obsessed with plant-based cooking and color. When I get to go to their houses, the first thing I want to do with my their young kids is cook. It can be a party. We blast their favorite music. They get to choose what we listen to on Spotify. We get out all the colorful things from the fridge. I give them knives, which their parents hate me for.

It’s colorful. They’re on a step stool. I give them the basics, depending on their age, and then kind of let them go. If we’re making a pesto together, they get to choose how much nutritional yeast and cashews we use. We pick recipes where they kind of can’t screw it up. They get to own the portion. 

Two things have come of that. It has built my relationship with these kids in a special way because they feel like they are being treated like an adult. Second, they are much more likely to eat the food when they have been involved in taking responsibility for it. Those experiences have made me even more excited to be a parent one day. It’s going to be a challenge, of course, because there are a lot of cultural forces that make it difficult, but it can also be a really fun thing.

Kids are much more likely to eat the food when they have been involved in taking responsibility for it.

I may be optimistic because I’m just popping in for one day with these families. It can be fun when you bring this type of colorful, fun energy to it. 

Nora LaTorre: I love that you do that. Those are my favorite days with my family. Once in a while, we make special Saturday pancakes. We’re trying to teach them, “How do we use nutrient-dense ingredients and things from the garden?” 

Seeing my daughter say, “I’m chef,” at three, and take control, wearing her little apron, and then tell me, “Mom, don’t forget yours,” while telling me what to do in the kitchen—those are my favorite days. 

In terms of what to do, stay passionate. Keep being passionate and nerding out. Join the conversation. We would love for people to get involved with us on LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn. Our newsletter shares a lot of resources, and we also share a lot about the different coalitions.

We, of course, need support. We fund all of our work to work with schools. We have incredible angel donors, corporate partners, and government support, which is exciting. But we fund all of our work with schools so they can buy higher quality ingredients, pay for chefs. We have a big wait list, and we’re trying to let as many schools off the list as possible. If anyone has any ideas for getting involved, starting to learn, and making an impact with us, we would be so grateful for more support.

We’re small and mighty: we’re like blueberries. We’re packed with antioxidants and fiber, but we’re still on the rise. We need all the health we can get. If you can give financial support, let us know. If you have a superpower that can help us build this movement, join in.

Dr. Casey Means: You are amazing, Nora. I am inspired, and I’m so happy to know you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

Nora LaTorre: Thank you.