What if your kids were excited about eating whole foods—and didn’t push healthy vegetables away in disgust? It’s possible to change childhood nutrition for the better. In this episode, Levels’ Dr. Casey Means interviewed Nora La Torre, the CEO of Eat Real. They talked about the importance of healthy school lunches, how real food can improve your immune system, and the best ways to get kids to eat healthy food.
04:24 – The current state of school lunches: a challenge to overcome
If you help people develop healthy habits early on, that’s the best way to prevent them from developing harmful ones later in life.
Back in 2019, when we decided to go all in on schools, we looked at, how do we do our most good as a nonprofit? How can we have catalytic impact? How do we improve the health of the planet and fix the health crisis of our children? And when we looked at all the different systems that we could affect, what really stood out was the scale of our school systems. Schools are the largest restaurant chain in America. They serve five billion meals a year. If you think about it, there’s one in every, almost every community in every town, and they’re serving high volume and they’re serving our most important, most vulnerable population, our children. And so we think if you can help people develop healthy habits, you want to start that early. And what a better platform to do it than at school?
08:23 – School lunches are the safety net for the future
School lunches are one of our most important safety nets to help feed underserved kids, and it’s time to support them more.
School lunches are one of the most important safety nets in our country. And I just pulled some food bank data and it showed that, for two months in a row, they’ve been seeing upticks in people going to the food bank. So up like 20% month over month. And then we know that there’s a global food supply chain issue right now, and things are probably going to get worse before they get better, and we really need to be doubling down on investing in school lunches and valuing how important they are to keeping our children safe.
10:35 – How Eat Real started
Nora shared how Eat Real started and how they got involved with schools to help them make transitions to healthier offerings.
We were founded by some leading doctors, pediatricians and public health advocates that were passionate about really having an integrated approach to human and plant health. And actually Dr. Leslie who I know is an advisor, is one of our co-founders, and they were really passionate about getting to the root cause. They saw in the doctor’s office that kids were getting sick and sicker and sicker. And so they said, how do we have upstream solutions? And they truly believe that real food is medicine for the most pressing challenges of our time.
12:12 – The health shock affecting millennials
Millennials are the first generation in U.S. history on track to have shorter lifespans than their parents. To reverse this trend, make sure people have access and knowledge to real food early on.
Millennials are experiencing health shock. They’re the first generation in U.S. history on track to have shorter lifespans than their parents. And so we felt like, if we can stop health shock, you can stop that best by really making sure people have access and knowledge to real food early on. And so that was really some of the biggest why’s, in terms of human health, for why we wanted to do what we do.
25:05 – The best classroom in America for health
Nora believes it’s time to start redesigning a food system that is better for children, and she thinks school lunchrooms are an important place to start.
The lunchroom can be the best classroom in America. And it needs to be, because it can solve our greatest challenges. It can solve climate change, and it can solve our health pandemic, and it can help pandemic proof us in the future. And so we really think it’s an important call to action to have all eyes on how do we redesign our food system with our children at the center and use schools as a platform to start there.
38:35 – Why lunchrooms are an investment
The more healthy food lunchrooms are able to offer, the more students and parents want to participate.
Our lunchroom should be an investment and is critically important to our kids, but they are tasked with being profit centers or at least breaking even. And if they’re profit centers, then they take that investment and then they can do things like build a kitchen or central kitchen or a warehouse or hire another chef or et cetera or farm. But they are tasked with being profit centers. The business case that we’re seeing 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 to eat the lunch, they want to participate. And so they look at something called participation. So we’re seeing that as schools investment in real food, their participation numbers go up, their reimbursement goes up.
43:30 – Nutrition as early intervention
Nutrition can affect our daily lives and even our brain health, so it’s important to use nutrition as part of a holistic approach to mental and physical wellbeing.
The early evidence is that nutrition can be an intervention. And so we’re like, okay, let’s make nutrition an intervention as early as possible before kids need a prescription. And also like, how can it be part of it? When anyone sees a therapist, how can they also be talking about their sleep and their diet right away so that it could be a really holistic approach to intervention. I hear parents and friends really worried about the rise of depression because of the pandemic intensified that, but even the surgeon general in December was calling, I don’t know if he quite called it an emergency, but in so many words, we are really worried about the mental health of our kids. So anything we can do, we should be doing.
49:43 – Every individual matters
Consumers have a lot of power when it comes to the business market. The more consumers demand healthy and fair trade products, the more businesses will comply.
In an individual, every purchase does matter, every bite does matter. So if you can have those reflect your values whenever possible and be part of the solution, the business responds to that. So consumer demand is super powerful. I watched it with the fair trade movement that I helped grow from niche to mass. Really when we focus on inspiring consumers, then they would say, the conscious consumer, they would say, “First, what’s fair trade, free trade on me?” And then they’re like, “No, I need fair trade coffee. That’s actually my consumer values.” And then it started to be table stakes for any company. They needed to up their bar.
57:43 – How real food can improve your immune system
Real food is essential for a healthy immune system. How you eat will directly impact your immune response when exposed to viruses.
We wanted to say that real food had the power to help people have functioning immune systems so that they can, if exposed to COVID, they can have a normal immune response, a strong immune response, an overactive immune response. And so that was why we wrote it. So what’s interesting is we did a bunch of data analysis and we found that, in the beginning of COVID, like October 2020, that 80% of New York City deaths had at least one comorbidity that was a processed food related disease. And then we also saw that, if someone’s insulin spiked, that it actually… This blew my mind, that it actually created more coding for the virus to enter the cells and then it held the door open for the virus to enter. So it actually increased insulin, and even from short term exposure to processed food, related to processed food, actually cause an increase in severity complications, hospitalizations, and death. So immediately, what we’re eating and how we’re fueling ourselves is impacting our ability to not be super impacted by COVID.
01:03:37 – The best way to get kids to eat healthy food
It’s not always easy to get kids to eat their vegetables, but there are ways to make eating healthy more fun and effective.
So what we learned from this was make it fun, turn on the music, make it colorful, and do it together. I think those are, if you can have a couple meal a week, even just do it together, have fun, put on the music, and make it colorful. That is what we are seeing time and time again, whether it’s in a school lunch setting or whether it’s at home, et cetera. That gets people… Food makes us all become more alive. It can. And so have fun with it and make it a priority. And everyone’s time crunched, so just once a week have that experience, make it an experience together, and focus on it, and it can be really, really powerful.
Nora La Torre: (00:06)
The lunch room can be the best classroom in America. And it needs to be because it can solve our greatest challenges. It can solve climate change and it can solve our health pandemic and it can help pandemic proof us in the future. And so we really think it’s an important call to action to have all eyes on how do we redesign our food system with our children at the center and use schools as a platform to start there.
Ben Grynol: (00:39)
I’m Ben Grynol part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health. And this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is a whole new level.
Dr. Casey Means: (01:04)
Hello, everyone. Welcome to a whole new level. This is Dr. Casey Means co-founder and chief medical officer of Levels. And I’m super thrilled to introduce our guest for today, Nora La Torre, who is the CEO of Eat Real, which is an incredible award-winning systems change organization that exists to fix the problem that exists right now, which is that, the next generation of our youth in the US are going to be the first generation with shorter lifespans than their parents and this is due to preventable, processed food related diseases. Eat Real focuses on empowering school districts to make food delicious, make it nourishing, use regenerative agriculture when possible in their K through 12 evidence based certification program, which we’re going to discuss in detail today.
Dr. Casey Means: (01:52)
Nora is a nationally recognized speaker, as well as a leader within the Tufts Food & Nutrition Innovation Council, the California government’s Farm to School Efforts, the nonprofit OneGreenThing and the XPRIZE Community. And she is just really an incredible human being who is taking a multifaceted coalition building approach to improve the health of our children through food. I can think of very little that is more important than helping our children live their healthiest lives so they can grow up to be healthy adults. And so I’m so excited to chat with Nora today about improving the food system and sustainable living, two topics that are so important to me, and so important to Levels. Welcome, Nora, to a whole new Level.
Nora La Torre: (02:44)
Awesome. I’m so happy to be here and I’m such a fan. And as a female, co-founder, I just really admire everything that you’re building and all the awareness building that you’re doing as well.
Dr. Casey Means: (02:55)
Thank you. And vice versa. And I am so excited for people to learn about Eat Real. For those who are listening, who are unfamiliar with this amazing organization, can you describe the mission and the organization?
Nora La Torre: (03:07)
Yeah. So Eat Real is a nonprofit that’s really 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 really see ourselves as a systems change nonprofit, and so we are doing policy and advocacy, we’re doing massive awareness building. And then we have an award-winning program where we actually make real food more accessible. And so we’re changing the game in school. So we’re making it so that schools can be the best, most delicious, culturally relevant, delicious, nutritious meal of a child’s day. And sometimes it can be 30 to a 100% of a kid’s calories. And so we’re really focused on empowering schools and school leaders to transform food in America, starting with schools. And that’s the core of what we do.
Dr. Casey Means: (03:56)
Oh, that’s so incredible. And it’s so, so needed because we have a lot of opportunity with school lunches. I have heard people at your organization talk about how schools are kind of like the biggest restaurant chain in America, in a sense, what does that mean? I don’t think people realize that. What is the landscape of the school lunch system? And what are the challenges that we’re facing today?
Nora La Torre: (04:24)
Back in 2019, when we decided to go all in on schools, we looked at, how do we do our most good as a nonprofit? How can we have catalytic impact? How do we improve the health of the planet and fix the health crisis of our children? And when we looked at all the different systems that we could affect, what really stood out was the scale of our school systems. Schools are the largest restaurant chain in America. They serve five billion meals a year, there’s… If you think about it, there’s one in every, almost every community in every town, and they’re serving high volume and they’re serving our most important, most vulnerable population, our children. And so we think if you can help people develop healthy habits, you start early and what a better platform to school do it than at school.
Dr. Casey Means: (05:10)
Incredible, incredible. I can’t believe, did you say five billion meals are served nationally per year in schools?
Nora La Torre: (05:18)
Five billion. So our program 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 sustainable accessible to students. And that’s with a small inviting nonprofit like ourselves, 120, that’s a huge amount of impact. And then we still have billions of meals available, we’re going to get there. And so, if we were to pick one place on our food system to make change and our health model to really upstream health solutions, our schools is what we think is the best innovation platform in America.
Dr. Casey Means: (06:00)
Absolutely. Tell us a little bit about, what is the current landscape of school lunches? Why is there even the need for something like Eat Real? What are kids eating? What are they being served? What’s the process that is being used to supply and source foods for schools? What is the current landscape look like and what do you feel that it needs to get to have better outcomes for children?
Nora La Torre: (06:25)
Yeah. So today just zooming out a little bit in terms of the state of food for our children and the state of health on our children, today, about 67% of a child’s calories are ultra process calories. And when we look… Yeah. 67%. And we’re in a children’s health crisis and we’re not ringing the bell loud enough, we… I was pulling Gymnema numbers, and since 2001, childhood diabetes Type 2, diabetes which is a processed food related disease at that point, is up a 100% in children in 20 years. Then that’s diabetes. Then we look at other markers and we’re seeing major cause for concern in terms of the state of children’s health. And so when we look at our school food landscape, I don’t know if, if you had school lunch growing up, first, in some places it hasn’t changed, but since I had school lunch or in some places though, it really has, and it can be as delicious, amazing meal.
Nora La Torre: (07:25)
Right now, school lunches, they’re very time pressed, you only have like 20 minutes maybe for school lunch. Also, the budgets are really constrained there. One number that I pulled was about a $1.50 per meal on a food spend, which is a very, very small margin in order to make it super nutrient and sustainable, but it is possible. So the state of school meals, also that 30 million kids depend on school meals for their nutrition. And during the pandemic, there were universal free meals passed, which was a lifeline for America and for American families. And actually now any kid can get a meal without stigma of like school lunch shaming, et cetera. And it’s their increasing participation and more and more children are starting to depend on school meals. So it’s becoming an even more powerful platform to create nutrition security and fight food insecurity and hunger in America.
Nora La Torre: (08:21)
And it’s one of the most important safety nets. School lunches are one of the most important safety nets in our country. And I just pulled some food bank data and it showed that, for two months in a row, they’ve been seeing upticks in people going to the food bank. So up like 20% month over month. And then we know that there’s like a global food supply chain issue right now, and things are probably going to get worse before they get better, and 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: (08:59)
Definitely. And I’m glad you touched on some of the health crises that we’re dealing with in our youth. It’s really astounding and I don’t think it can be overstated, the crisis that we’re in. We’ve got childhood obesity and overweight rates increasing at alarming rates, the rates of obesity and kids doubled in COVID from some of the research I was seeing on the CDC website, we’ve got rates of prediabetes going up in kids. And now we’re finding that, in some populations, a quarter of adolescent have prediabetes, a condition that we used to think of as only adult onset, we’ve got fatty liver disease in kids on the rise. It’s kind of incredible because like you said, these are food related diseases and five billion meals are going out to kids from schools.
Dr. Casey Means: (09:49)
So it really does feel like there is a profound opportunity to link this metabolic disease epidemic in children that we’re seeing that again, like you said, we need to sound the alarm bell way louder on, but link that with a really positive ability to impact this through this food delivery system that’s already in place. And it’s so amazing that Eat Real is at the intersection of these two crises. So paint a picture for us of like, 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 La Torre: (10:28)
I would love to dive into how we work on it. Can I share a little bit about why we were started a little bit more?
Dr. Casey Means: (10:33)
Nora La Torre: (10:35)
We were founded by some leading doctors, pediatricians and public health advocates that we’re passionate about really having an integrated approach to human and plant health. And actually Dr. Leslie is an advisor is one of our co-founders and they were really passionate about getting to the root cause, they saw in the doctor’s office that kids were getting sick and sicker and sicker. And so they said, how do we have upstream solutions? And they truly believe that real food is medicine for the most pressing challenges of our time, and so they…
Nora La Torre: (11:06)
I think also when we look at just the economic motivation, which some of the early supporters of our nonprofit were really passionate about the nonprofits potential to be an economic solution in that, when 3.8 is spent on healthcare, which is truly sick care and that like over 75% of that has to do with processed food related diseases. So that’s expensive. We’re treating disease largely with medicine and other medical intervention. We’re putting $3.8 trillion a year into that versus if we spend billions of dollars on healthy food upstream for kids so that they don’t develop those metabolic diseases. And so that was really the motivation of looking at how do we upstream health solutions and give kids access to food as medicine early on so that the they can expand their lifespans. And we saw that pre COVID lifespan was on a decline and the largest drivers were actually processed food related disease.
Nora La Torre: (12:08)
So we saw that Americans millennials are experiencing health shock, that’s why I got involved. Millennials are experiencing health shock. They’re the first generation in us history on track to have shorter lifespans than their parents. And so we felt like, if we can reverse stop health shock, you can stop that best by really making sure people have access and knowledge to real food early on. And so that was really some of the biggest why’s, in terms of human health, for why we wanted to do what we do.
Dr. Casey Means: (12:37)
Yeah. I mean, that’s so amazing. I think that the reactive nature of our healthcare system… We’re learning that it’s an abject failure. The more money we’ve dumped into the healthcare system, the worse outcomes are getting. And 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 systems’ expectations. As a physician, it’s just shocking to me because you’d think that, okay, if 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.
Dr. Casey Means: (13:20)
We need to go back to the drawing board, something is not working. And I think you and I both agree that one of the things that is not working is that we’re not focusing on food, and we’re not focusing upstream on what actually goes into the body to build the body and to generate health. And so I think it’s just incredible to hear how you and this team of founders and advisors are approaching this through that lens. And then I think, you know what? I’m so curious about is like, how does this actually play out like, when you go to the schools?
Dr. Casey Means: (13:52)
One thing I wrote about this in an article I published last year about the USDA’s updated school lunch guidelines. And from where I stood, 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. And so that was my take on things. So we’re all up against some really entrenched large forces with large economic incentives to push processed foods. So how does Eat Real get into the mix with that, dealing with a lot of policy, we’ve got school boards, we’ve got the constraints of funding and budgeting and resources. How do you insert yourself into that mil you that is really challenging to affect change?
Nora La Torre: (14:41)
Totally agree. We think of the last 50 years as a processed food failed experiment, just it didn’t work and let’s all just acknowledge it, and then let’s say how do we do things differently, but just starting now. Process food has gone up, sugar consumption has gone up, disease has gone up, climate change has accelerated and their strong correlation. So we have kind of a three pronged approach. We do policy and advocacy, we do awareness building, and then we have a core program where we really deep dive into communities to transform the menu in public schools. I can talk a little bit about what does it look like when we roll up our sleeves in a community because it is game changing.
Nora La Torre: (15:22)
And now, let me tell you, school lunches are my favorite meal on the year. When I think of my favorite meals this year is school lunch and so it is possible. I literally dream of the heirloom beans that I had in Advocaply Unified, for example. Yes, it is… Like the salad, the organic salads that’s being unified, or the planet cuisine, the plant cuisine that’s being grown in Mt. Dablo Unified. They are amazing delicious sponges being served. And so it is possible. So what we do is, we have a science based approach where we have science based sustainability nutrition standards. So again, a very integrated approach. And we stand next to the food service structures who are really our champions of change. You’ve heard how during the pandemic about school lunch heroes, where food service directors are actually the buyers of the food for their school districts.
Nora La Torre: (16:14)
And so we really believe that these individuals, and there are many of them around the country who are total visionaries, are the ones that are the decision makers and that they are the closest, their students are listening to what they need and want. And they have the ability to enroll their school board, their superintendents, the parents, everyone to transform the menu. And so what we do is, first, we arm them with partnership. And so we really understand what are their goals? What are their visions for their program? What do they see today? And then we actually assess them. And so we have independent registered dieticians who assess the school district on our rigorous science based nutrition and sustainability standards.
Nora La Torre: (16:51)
And so we’ll look at their menu, we’ll look at where they’re sourcing, we’ll look at what oils are using, we’ll look at how much sugar is things, we’ll look at how local it is, who their suppliers are. Like, we will just… They’ll open up their books and they’ll show us what their menus look like, and then we give them a report. It’s usually like at least 14 page report where like, here’s your… It’s a report card. Here’s where you’re rocking it, and here are your opportunities. And then we decide with them, okay, what’s the action plan? And we help them create their action plan.
Nora La Torre: (17:20)
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, like here’s where I want to start. And then we stand next to them and 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. And then we go through a multi-year process with them, and then we reassess them after they’ve made the changes to see if they can get Eat Real certified.
Dr. Casey Means: (17:45)
Amazing. I think it’s so optimistic to hear. I think it’s really easy to stand back and kind of demonize everything and be like, oh, it’s so bad across the board, and it’s all industry entrenched, but to hear you talk and really you are down on the ground with the people and the people have great intentions and it’s like, you are working with them to empower visionary leaders to be able to actually achieve their mission. I think that’s such a good message to hear, because it could be easy to be pessimistic about what’s happening in schools, and like in school lunches and in the processed food ecosystem. And so I love hearing that.
Dr. Casey Means: (18:24)
And I would love to hear maybe some success stories like… You were mentioning some of your favorite things like the beans. It’s so cool to hear. I’d love to hear some success stories that you’ve had that have been really meaningful to you and really transforming a school food system. And maybe also as a follow up question to that, how you’ve seen children respond to the change in food? And if you’ve had any takeaways around… Again, there’s pessimism around this kids won’t eat healthy kid foods, kids won’t eat vegetables, kids are so picky, this and that, but you’ve probably seen a lot more than most people with kids and diet. So I’d love to hear maybe some stories that have been particularly meaningful to you of where change is actually possible.
Nora La Torre: (19:11)
Yeah. Kids are a tough crap, as a mom too, I know. I think a lot of it’s about… I’m going to start with a kids’ question, we can talk about that.
Nora La Torre: (19:18)
… But like partly why I school lunch is my favorite is because I get to eat lunch with kids and see what lights them up. And our whole goal is help kids learn to love real food. So when I see them come alive with food, and that’s what happen, I get really, really inspired. But it is hard. They’re tough critics. And it can take so many times of exposure, it can take 15 times of trying something new to devoutly develop your taste. And so we’ll see school districts that are like, I’m offering bok choy today, but I’m also going offer it in every week for the next few weeks.
Nora La Torre: (19:52)
And we are going to try to get some different… We’re going to serve it in different ways and the kids are going to try it and you see them curious about it and maybe trying some of it and then seeing what their friends are doing. It’s really about exposure, I think, but what’s cool is that, we do have such a foodie culture in the United States and globally, I think. With the rise of the food network, we have rising top chefs at schools. Every kid is a top chef at this point, it feels like. And so it’s really fun to watch them get really passionate about food. Or if you look at like what things are going viral on TikTok, food is something that is so personal and is something that we interact with every day and it can be so fun.
Nora La Torre: (20:33)
And so the kids do start lighting up over it when they get a plant base burger or they get a regenerative grassed base burger, and it’s cooked from scratch, they had the whole sensory experience smelling it. They know they have a cool new chef that’s doing cool things and they’re going through the school lunch line and there’s maybe music playing. And then they get to bite into that delicious meal that was lovingly prepared for them with passion. They are like, this burger is the bomb. That’s a quote from a third grader. That was honestly what he thought. And then you just see them really enjoying it and having fun. And that it’s a really positive part of their day. And that then, when you ask them about it and how it helps when they are in the classroom they’ll say, like, I feel better, I don’t have a tummy ache or things like that.
Nora La Torre: (21:19)
It really matters to them. And it gives them a boost. It’s like good books or working breaks on a school bus. School lunches are key to a kid at having a successful happy day at school, and not being in the doctor’s office or the nurses’ office et cetera. And so seeing the kids light up and love it is my favorite. Other wins in schools. There ae so many that are happening. One of our school partners, Morgan Hill Unified, I was just there. They have an AI powered hydroponic container ship garden that their vision is they want to grow an entire… In drought stricken California, they want to grow an entire organic salad for their students in the youth container ships. And they use five gallons of water about a shower’s worth of water. It’s all grown within 10 miles of the schools and a student.
Nora La Torre: (22:12)
So it’s harvested within 24 hours, it served to students. And they actually just hired farmer Max, is one of my favorite people who love TikTok. He of mom’s lettuce, like seeing him how much he loves lettuce, and he’s a graduate from that high school, and now he’s growing the lettuce for the students. I think that’s just one example of how they’re raising the bar, I think. And having a lead farmer who has a farm on campus that’s growing a huge portion of the menu, that is farm to table. That’s like Tapany or… It’s like Nave, the best restaurant in the United States and they’re trying to do it. So it’s really… There are tons of examples like that that are happening throughout the country.
Dr. Casey Means: (22:52)
Okay. That is so, so fascinating because what’s really jumping out to me is how much there’s this needing to understand the psychology of the kids to really get them to adopt this, like the fact that they might eat something or be more prone to eat something if it’s going viral on TikTok, or like, if there’s great music playing and the chef is really fun and engaged about it. And that there’s actually that, that you’re actually seeing this type of body awareness come into it as well, where the kids are actually reporting that they feel better after having this healthier food. That’s all, I think really interesting takeaways for parents, a two of like, how to get the kid on board and get them invested in the process. And then of course like with the hydroponic farm, which is so cool, I mean, that’s got to be really… Light kids up as well in terms of just like the novelty of it and how interesting it is.
Nora La Torre: (23:49)
That same school had these mini farms for farms inside. They’re in science classrooms, but then they were also in the lunchroom and it was Pajama Day. It was the cutest thing. Everyone has their, so it’s PJ Day and they had the school salad bar line and all the kids went through and it had Spanish and English, the types of vegetables, what they were, information about the colors of them. Sometimes we see them talk about vitamins and/or where they’re from. And sometimes they mix in stuff from the school garden, which then the kids are really proud. But then these first graders went back and sat down and then they opened up these, kind of think of them as like mini popup farms or like fridge farms where you like, can open it and there’s different…
Nora La Torre: (24:28)
In this case, it was lettuce growing. And at the food service director took it out, Michael, and he said, who wants to try this? And no hand went up, and at first it was like, Ooh, because they had pulled out this wets with the roots, they thought they only seen lettuce leaves. And then all of a sudden, one kid raised their hand and they tried it. And then all the other kids looked at them and I think it was like, make it communal, make it community, whether it’s at school, make it together or at home. And then after that one kid, all eyes were on the kid and they were trying. Then every single hand shot up and we ate through all the lettuce together. They were so pumped about this lettuce.
Nora La Torre: (25:04)
And so the lunchroom can be the best classroom in America. And it needs to be, because it can solve our greatest challenges. It can solve climate change and it can solve our health pandemic and it can help pandemic proof us in the future. And so we really think it’s an important call to action to have all eyes on how do we redesign our food system with our children at the center and use schools as a platform to start there.
Dr. Casey Means: (25:33)
I love that it takes just one to make it cool.
Nora La Torre: (25:37)
Dr. Casey Means: (25:37)
Is like the domino effect. One question I have for you, because you’re on the ground, you’re a lot closer to kids, do they have an interest in the health aspect of food? Of like, food can either make me healthy and feel good or it’s going to make me feel bad and down and this and that. Do those connections come through and is that a motivator or is it really more the social aspect that you feel like is the driver? But I just be curious on your perspective on that. Do you see kids taking an interest in the health or environmental side of this?
Nora La Torre: (26:10)
I think in the health we’re starting to, and also when you get the PE teachers get involved and from a sports and performance perspective, yes. A 100% yes. That’s really been interesting is, when we partner with different organizations that are doing that more or roll up curriculum through that way, where we get sports leaders involved, we have a new professional soccer player getting involved in the movement. And so when we have it from a… They do understand that food can fuel them to feel better and to perform, especially in sports. I feel like it’s a big motivator.
Nora La Torre: (26:42)
I think that might be kind of like the first aha, but we’re starting to see kids put it together. I mean, kids are wicked smart friend, like… So early on, as a mom live at threenager, they do put it together. My threenager puts it together. I think, yeah, kids do put it together and especially, I think it’s particularly motivational for sports and performance. So, yes.
Dr. Casey Means: (27:04)
That’s great to hear. And again, another interesting takeaway of like, how do you position it? maybe it’s not avoiding prediabetes that they are super caring about, but is it going to make them better on the basketball court, speak their language like, food can do this for you. I love that. I’m going to tuck that one away for when I have kids one day. We talked about the hydroponics a little bit. And you also mentioned like, this is a part of the beauty of this food based approach is that it can heal bodies, it can heal the climate, it can make us also more pandemic proof. Can you speak to how the climate side of this and the farming and agricultural side of this fits into your mission? Because I think some people might think like, gosh, school lunches, regenerative farming, how does this all relate? I’d love to hear the framework for how you’re thinking through all this stuff.
Nora La Torre: (27:57)
Yeah. So in terms of we talked about food is processed food related disease is the number one driver of shortened healthspan and lifespan. So that’s super obvious why we focus there at why our solution works on attack that right problem. And then from a climate perspective, just about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions comes from our food system. And when we look at other areas of our food or of climate change in greenhouse gas emissions, there’s more momentum. There’s more acceleration in terms of electrification and some of the other sectors.
Nora La Torre: (28:29)
So a lot of people think that food is under invested in and today like 2% of philanthropic global giving goes to fighting climate change. So just generally climate change is under invested. And I would add it’s under invested, but I think… Like we talked with them, what so motivated is for kids, kids care, climate anxiety is on the rise. The Greta affect, kids want to feel like they’re doing something and that they’re saving the planet. They’re actually stressed out and really worried and having mental health issues around it, climate anxiety became a word in the dictionary and it is so on the right. So kids really, really care about climate change. And one of the best ways that they can take action is through their food.
Nora La Torre: (29:08)
So fixing school luncheon and school breakfast and making that more climate smart gives them a way to take action every single day. And I think when it comes to climate change, like I said, it’s 25%, about 23% of brain health gas emissions, but it’s one where we have the power to individually take action and to advocate for changing our food system so that everyone has access to healthy regenerative options. And there are so many ways, I think when we look at Pell Hawk and just back, gave us a quote of support for our nonprofit and for all the work that we’re doing within climate change. And for him, I think what he was saying is like, how it is about regeneration.
Nora La Torre: (29:54)
And 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. And so our food and doing that through the soil and the food that’s grown, the majority of food is grown in soil and our soil, can actually sequester carbon and fight climate change. It’s literally a climate solution right beneath our feet and it’s so powerful. And the win-win, National Geographic just did a piece of that. If you can create healthier soil and healthier microbes in the soil, it actually creates more nutrient density in the food that you’re growing. So it’s true, our food is one of the most powerful climate solutions out there. And it’s one that we interact with so many times a day.
Dr. Casey Means: (30:41)
Absolutely. And I think that article you posted, I believe on your LinkedIn from National Geographic was really fascinating. And basically showing that fruits and vegetables today are less nutritious than they used to be. So even if you’re making that incredible effort to eat the whole foods and the fruits and vegetables and the beans and legumes and the nuts and seeds and all these things. If you are eating them out of conventional soil that have been basically processed through modern farming practices, that damage the soil, you’re getting way less bang for your buck. And so we’re just short-changing ourselves, by the way that we’re interacting with the soil.
Nora La Torre: (31:22)
And Dr. Royal from leadership, always stick with me, but she said, not only are you getting maybe less nutrient dense, but also you could be getting… With conventional methods, you unknowingly likely getting the side of pesticides. And so now whenever I’m serving my kid’s food or whatnot, I’m imagining an invisible side of pesticides if I’m not trying to, for some reason we couldn’t try to buy organic that day or regenerative and whatnot. That one made me sick to my stomach.
Dr. Casey Means: (31:49)
Yeah. Less nutrients to the side of pesticides, which can be neurotoxic and can infect our microbiome. It’s great. It sounds delicious. It’s unbelievable and-
Nora La Torre: (31:59)
Right to our kids.
Dr. Casey Means: (32:00)
Yeah. Love it. Yeah. And we wonder why we have this monumentally rising chronic disease epidemic. And then of course 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 narrative. And I think that… I’d be curious to hear how Eat Real is involved with the regenerative organic agriculture movement. How is that play into the system change that you guys are working on with schools? And how do you interact with farms? I know you said right before you started, you just came from a regenerative farm. So I’d love to hear what that intersection looks like for Eat Real, and how you see more broadly schools interacting with the farming system to create this really synergistic harmony.
Nora La Torre: (32:47)
Yeah. I love it. So when we look at top climate solutions within our food system and within schools, usually what rises into the top are reduced food waste, 40% of food is wasted. So let’s reduce food waste, at home is important. Everyone can try to reduce food waste at home, but at schools, which is an institution and is so huge in terms of volume, it’s massive. So they can source imperfect produce, they can… Or seconds, they can make the food super delicious so that the kids eat as much as possible of it of that serving and don’t put it in the trash. And if they, instead of putting it in the trash, put it in a compost and have that compost go back to the school garden, go back to the farmer and have it be in more closed loop who grew their food.
Nora La Torre: (33:26)
And so we think that reducing food waste is huge. And our program supports that. We think adding more plant-based options. In general, there’s one study like, 1% of 14 year old girls got the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. So we’re not getting up plants, in general, and plants feed, which I’m sure we’ll talk a lot. Sure. I would love to get out with you about microbiome in a second, but how we need to be feeding ourselves plants and feeding our microbiome plants and more of them. So more plants, that’s more salad bars, that’s more plant power and options, et cetera. That’s more fruits and vegetables. That’s that bok choy or those beans. That is getting just eating more, having more plant power, looking at our plate and having as much possible be plant powered. So those are two major changes in terms of environmental.
Nora La Torre: (34:11)
And then the other one that we work with is, and which people can apply in their individual life and then also at schools is, know your farmer, source locally when possible, source seasonally, source regenerative. And regenerative organic is kind of a hot term right now, but it’s also, it’s really, really, really important because regenerative organic is the type of farming where they actually are able to sequester the most carbon. When you look at types of farming, it’s the most powerful in terms of mitigating climate change. So we help them source regenerative certified and transitioning and regenerative farms that integrate those practices of no till and there’s…
Nora La Torre: (34:50)
There are so many projects that I can get into, but we have schools source from regenerative sources. And so we were just on our regenerative farm. We had a regenerative farm summit, Jennifer Sibel Newsom, first partner of California. Who’s a big supporter, incredible supporter the Farm to School movement. She was on the farm with us, executives from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, top chef winner, David Tu, who’s like… Chef Tu who’s just one of the most inspiring people ever. He was on the farm with us. And then we had school leaders from… In this case, it was a California Summit. We are a national nonprofit, but we had school leaders from across California who represented a $130 million of buying power, 400 schools, like 275,000 students.
Nora La Torre: (35:33)
And I’ve been getting updates from all of them about, they’re starting to buy more regenerative egg. I put in an order here, my June menu is having regenerative products on it. So we’re in addition working deep dive one on one with schools, we’re trying to have summits where we do farm tours and education. I can see us doing… We just did this regenerative farm tour. Next we could do food waste tour, where learning about compost. And then we could do a plant based session. So we are all about these platforms of education to inspire little leaders. And that’s everywhere from government to policy makers to decision makers at schools, to families and students and chefs.
Dr. Casey Means: (36:13)
Wow. Okay. You mentioned a number there I wanted to circle back on, which was the number of buying power in the room. What was that number that you mentioned?
Nora La Torre: (36:22)
$130 million a year of buying power, purchase power-
Dr. Casey Means: (36:26)
For school food?
Nora La Torre: (36:27)
For school meals. Just school meals. Yeah.
Dr. Casey Means: (36:30)
And just to drill into that a little bit more, who are those people? Is it the school administrators who are in charge of buying the food for the school? Or who is that group that is making these decisions?
Nora La Torre: (36:41)
Yeah. So there are a lot of stakeholders involved in a community. The food service director or the nutrition director, wears a Cape. They are the champion. And so everyone on teacher appreciation date, write your food service director and nutrition director a note, get to know them, thank them. They are the ones that are the buyers. And they get usually the chief business officer, the superintendent, the school board, they work in the PTA, they work with a lot of other people, but they are the change agent in our model.
Dr. Casey Means: (37:08)
Amazing. Okay. So that’s really interesting. In your experience, have you found that this type of awareness and education building and really forging relationships with these stakeholders, that has been an effective way of getting people to move towards regenerative buying and things like that? Because what’s coming to mind for me is like, this sounds really expensive. If there’s only a dollar and change per student per day, and they have to meet budgets and this and that. Like, how to triangulate all the different factors that they’re trying to, and they also have to meet, I’m sure like certain USDA requirements-
Nora La Torre: (37:44)
Dr. Casey Means: (37:44)
… Or what goes into the food. So, how is that working in terms of making this squaring the circle or whatever that’s saying is to work for everyone?
Nora La Torre: (37:55)
Their jobs are so complicated and they’re navigating all those things that you just mentioned. So what’s really exciting is that we are collecting a lot of data that shows that there’s actually a business case for real food. And that it’s actually a better business model to invest in real versus processed food. Like real scratch, cooked, delicious, particularly relevant, sustainable food, for multiple reasons. And I’m going to talk about micro and then macro. At an individual school district level, they’re actually tasked with being profit centers, which I think is strange, the teachers aren’t tasked with making money off of their classrooms.
Nora La Torre: (38:35)
Our lunchroom should be an investment and is critically important to our kids, but they are tasked of being profit centers or at least breaking even. And if they’re profit centers, then they take that investment and then they can do things like build a kitchen or central kitchen or a warehouse or hire another chef or cetera or farmer Max. But they are tasked of being profit centers. The business case that we’re seeing is that, as they have invested in real food and raised the bar through our program, they’re customers, students and parents, parents who support their kids eat the lunch, they want to participate.
Nora La Torre: (39:08)
And so they look at something called participation. So we’re seeing that as schools investment in real food, their participation numbers go up, their reimbursement goes up. They’re able to upscale some of their staff and create efficiency and engage their staff, and their staff gets higher wages as well, but they’re able to invest in their food program, but see overall revenue and profit even increase. And so there’s actually a business case that we’re going on a road show with. And that’s why we have a multi-year wait list for our program because school food service directors are telling their friend like, this works, this is working. And so there’s a business case we made and that’s at a micro or like individual community level.
Nora La Torre: (39:44)
At a macro there multiple true cost of food analysis studies and meta studies. And one showed that for every dollar that’s invested in school meals, there’s $2 of benefits. And that’s looking at poverty reduction because it offers a safety net to families and then also in healthcare, and what we’re talking about in terms of healthcare spend. And so that is really, really strong ROI in terms of, it is an investment, but there’s return on that investment. And that’s not even talking about all the individual, the happier and healthier kid that’s able to focus and learn and grow and thrive.
Dr. Casey Means: (40:19)
Oh my God, I’m so excited to hear that, because yeah, it’s like, it does need to come and does need to fit with the bottom line for this to be, I feel like really scalable, and to hear that you’re having emerging data, that it does. So it’s really working for everyone gives me so much hope that this could really scale, and that’s… Just so impressed by the work you’re doing to, A, figure out this information, work with all the key stakeholders. And then, like you said, go on a road show to make sure that people know this, that it’s going to align with their different priorities. So that’s so cool.
Dr. Casey Means: (40:54)
And you started talking there at the end about a topic that I want to shift gears to, which is that, in terms of the return on investment, one of the returns is that the kids are happier and doing better. And so this, I think brings up an interesting topic around the relationship between food and mental health. And one of the mediators of that we know is the microbiome. I’d be curious to hear… One thing I’ve been reading a lot about recently is just that rates of things like ADHD and attention disorders that are definitely going to affect students and teachers they’re on the rise and there’s more and more emerging evidence that there’s a relationship between some of these conditions and dietary equality and that microbiome might be a link.
Dr. Casey Means: (41:39)
I’d love for you to maybe break down for the listeners your take on this relationship and how the program Eat Real is again, triangulating this gut function, student health, metabolic and mental, and then better farming practices and sourcing better quality food for students.
Nora La Torre: (42:02)
Yeah. And there’s a lot of early evidence. I’ll talk through it with you. I think we’re both digesting it, sorry, pun intended. I’m so digesting and all, but… I mean, I’ve been just fascinated with all the signs that’s coming out around the gut brain connection. I think a lot of times I grew up thinking there’s your brain and there’s your gut and they’re two separate things. We’re seeing that’s an interconnected highway. And that, a lot of ways, our guts are our second brain or maybe it’s all part of one brain and that they think together. There’s so much emerging that we still don’t know and don’t understand. I show my daughter the magic school bus ride, but I like want to take a magic school bus ride through my whole body right now of like to really see the latest on the connections between the brain and the gut health. And there’s so much coming out.
Nora La Torre: (42:49)
I think what’s really interesting is there was just a nature study I posted about it, but talking about BGM, brain gut microbiome. As someone who’s really passionate about, that just the idea of this brain gut microbiome as one interconnected super highway system is super, super interesting. I think what’s interesting is that, the nature piece that was analyzing numerous studies was talking about how there is early evidence that dietary intervention helps solve for some of the conditions that we think of as not gut conditions that actually we think of as the psychiatric conditions, brain disorders, et cetera.
Nora La Torre: (43:29)
And so the early evidence is that, nutrition can be an intervention. And so we’re like, okay, let’s make nutrition an intervention as early as possible before kids need a prescription. And also like, how can it be part of it? When anyone sees a therapist, how can they also be talking about their sleep and their diet and like right away. So that it could be a really holistic approach to intervention. I think we hear parents… I hear parents and friends really worried about the rise of depression because of… Pandemic intensified that, but even the surgeon general in December was calling, I don’t know if he quite called it an emergency, but in so many words, we are really worried about the mental health of our kids.
Nora La Torre: (44:12)
So anything we can do, we should be doing and 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. And so I think that if we can start to do more studies and more research and have more tools like Levels that we’re getting more and more data and information, then we can really start to have a stronger approach to these concerns and that are so integrated with how our gut health and our brain health.
Dr. Casey Means: (44:48)
Yeah. It’s tragic to think about the suffering that’s happening and that the pandemic really accelerated in terms of these mental health issues in children. And I think that, yeah, for those of us who are deep in this space about food as medicine and thinking about things like the microbiome and the impact on the brain, it just seems like a no brainer of like, if we can get more nutrients to kids’ bodies and brains, the multifarious positive effects that it can have on just general day to day performance, but also potentially on mental health issues, it’s one of the levers we’ve got to pull.
Dr. Casey Means: (45:26)
It’s not the only one, there’s so many other things also involved, but it’s so foundational. I mean, this is what our bodies are built out of and food, and food is also what the microbiome eats to thrive, propagate and do their work, which is so important to our brain. So I think it’s exciting how the very scientific research on the brain gut microbiome access. And the gut brain access is sort of happening and coinciding with the regenerative agriculture movement and also a better understanding of just more generally food is medicine. Because it feels like we’re in this really exciting moment right now where there’s synthesis and integration of many of the biggest problems we’re facing today and realizing it’s almost like…
Dr. Casey Means: (46:08)
I focus on systems, biology and medicine, what are the links and the root causes between lots of diseases. But this is like the systems’ approach to global problems, not just body problems, but global problems. And I think it’s the way we’ve got to be thinking. So we stopped playing whack-a-mole with all these different epidemics and think about like, what’s going to help all of them? And it’s like, real food, clean real food. It’s going to help a lot of these problems. So it feels like Eat Real is just like so in the middle of that, and it’s so amazing.
Nora La Torre: (46:40)
It’s definitely my dream job. I love… Every day I feel like… I am so excited to work. I love getting to work on this and it is a truly scalable solution. And then we get into the awareness building and then we can all come together, whether it’s conversations like this or campaigns that we can do together, or like brands and individuals and everybody, thought leaders, influencers, and then the policy and the advocacy shift. I think between all the different ways, we’re all tackling it.
Nora La Torre: (47:09)
We’re all also personally, I think, getting more involved, I don’t think people thought about processed food related disease, that wasn’t really a word that people were talking about, or metabolic health like that, I don’t remember. I mean, doctors, yeah, you were talking about that, but other people were, we were inflammation or IVF. These are people that are starting to… One sub lining club is like, we have never been more aware of our health. We’ve also never felt less in control, I think. So how do we take this moment of awareness and then help people take easy actions and then systemic actions to make changes?
Dr. Casey Means: (47:46)
What question I have on that sort of systems level issue is… One book I really love is, well, I love all Rob Lasik’s books and metabolical talks about this a lot, but Mark Hyman’s book Food Fix, which goes into a lot of detail about these systems level issues and how basically, the process food industry is like intent on getting their product in front of kids and through schools as one of those mechanisms. And also just, I mean, if you walk through any sort of conventional grocery store, it’s like, it is just a direct conduit of this processed food to people in the most appealing packaging and cheapest prices, because it’s supported by the Farm Bills and it’s partially subsidized and it’s just…
Dr. Casey Means: (48:28)
We’re up against so much in terms of the processed food industry. And in some ways, I mean I think there are some issues within the USDA in terms of just interests that are misaligned. I’ve written about this a little bit with the… Like I mentioned, the school lunch changes that happened a year or two ago. And then also 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 they’re bored of medical reviewers said not to do that. And so-
Nora La Torre: (48:58)
Yeah. No sugar standards in schools, so kids get like… One analysis, four times the amount of sugar they’re supposed to get in the entire day, they can get in just breakfast and dinner.
Dr. Casey Means: (49:05)
Yes. Yeah. Can you speak a little bit to that? How do we affect change? What is your way of thinking about how we’re 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. Because I don’t think… To me, it seems impossible to overpower… I mean, this is trillions of dollars of interest, but how do we work together to make this work without just fighting them the whole time? How do you think through that?
Nora La Torre: (49:39)
Well, this is where this like this individual piece does, mostly, I think it’s a sub chain, but in an individual, every purchase does matter, every bite does matter. So if you can have those reflect your values whenever possible and be part of the solution, the business response to that. So consumer demand is super powerful. I washed it with the Fairtrade movement that I helped grow from niche to mass. Really when we focus on inspiring consumers, then they would say like… Rides of the conscious consumer, they would say, I want… First, what’s Fairtrade free trade on me. And then they’re like, no, I need fair trade coffee. That’s actually my consumer values. And then it started to be table stakes for any company they needed to up their bar.
Nora La Torre: (50:20)
So I do think consumers, if you have a favorite product help writing to them, posting on social media, get active and get involved and then put halos around your regenerative farmer. It’s not all that you eat, but like one… Your favorite lettuce or… This from whatever, just get new social media, use a tool that you have, have that be part of your messaging as an individual. I think that businesses will respond to consumer demand. I’ve seen it happen. So I do think that there’s something there. But I think there is a big money and vested interest in keeping things status quo and keeping this ship that’s hurting our kids and hurting our planet going in the direction that it’s going.
Nora La Torre: (51:01)
So to write that ship, we need to be super organized and collaborative. We believe in building coalitions. So our nonprofit will partner with 200 other nonprofits to help support universal free meals for example, or there are a bunch of nonprofits right now that are coming together to think about the Farm Bill. And the Farm Bill is something that every five years comes up for renewal. And so I think that, and… The Farm Bill, for people that aren’t familiar with it, I think that is one where that, yes, individuals can do things, but we can all come together as non-profits as people that want to join campaigns and whatnot and advocate for innovation on the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is what…
Nora La Torre: (51:39)
Is actually interesting, that was thinking about it a lot. And it was founded during the great depression and the Dust Bowl, but we have an economic situation now and we have similar issues we did then in terms of environmental collapse and economic challenges and health challenges. And so the Farm Bills is supposed to be a solution to that. And so we think that a bunch of people all coming together to advocate for a better design of Farm Bill, and the Farm Bill is what funds, SNAP, nutrition assistance, and commodity subsidies, like right now we’re subsidizing corn, sugar, wheat, soy, things that go into processed food disease.
Nora La Torre: (52:18)
The Farm Bill funds SNAP, and the number one item in 2011 list, and I couldn’t find this last year’s data, but was corn syrup based sodas. So the Farm Bill right now is funding traditional, conventional mono crop agriculture versus all the things that we were just talking about of real whole delicious, more plants, et cetera. The Farm Bill haven’t quite caught up to what consumers and students are demanding right now. And so we think that there’s a really cool opportunity to innovate and that our legislators can make changes there. And so I think that it needs to be a top priority and something that people think about as their voting in their elected officials who are going to vote on the Farm Bill.
Dr. Casey Means: (52:58)
Yes, yes, yes. I would love to maybe even as someone who personally has taken a great interest in the Farm Bills, and something that really… I remember reading a report on Farm Bills, the actual report of where the studies funding is going to. And I think I recall that 31 billion was going towards commodity crop subsidies, and that’s like all the things you mentioned, disease promoting foods, most of which are turned… It’s not like this is soybeans that are going to like edamame, the frozen section, they’re going towards processed seed oils and other things that are unhealthy. Then there was this small section of the Farm Bill, that’s the horticulture, little subset. And that’s where there’s a little carve out for funding for basically vegetables and legumes and nuts and things like that. And if you look at-
Nora La Torre: (53:47)
Dr. Casey Means: (53:47)
Specialty crops. Yeah. And it’s like-
Nora La Torre: (53:51)
7% goes to conservation. Okay, well, how… Yeah. If you look at the pie-
Dr. Casey Means: (53:56)
The pie chart is a joke. Wait, the huge part of the pie chart should be fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, spices, et cetera. The things that will make us healthy. And it’s like, there is the land, there is the farmers, let’s support the things that make people healthy. It’s like a no brainer. So it’d be interesting to hear how do people actually speak up to tell their legislator that they want this to happen, like, what’s even the right language to use. And are there organizations that can help?
Nora La Torre: (54:27)
This one thing, just to touch on the Farm Bill really quick because I have been nerding out on that, white board and like sitting back. And when you look at that pie chart and… Like SNAP is super important that we’re funding that nutrition assistance because that is such a safety net in America. And how do you make it so that sodas isn’t the number one thing purchased? How do you incentivize things? There are really cool programs, like Double Buck programs that wholesome wave and others are promoting where if you are using SNAP dollars, then you can get $2… For every dollar spent on fruits and veggies, you can get two. It’s worth two, actually, if you buy those things.
Nora La Torre: (55:09)
And so there’s some really cool incentives and tests that have been going on that can be scaled and incorporated into the Farm Bill so that it prioritizes more plants and more nutrients density and more of the things that are going to heal people in the planet. And so I think that’s… And then looking at, okay, well these other pieces of the pie, what else is there? How does it go towards regenerative practices? How does it go towards like supporting a lot of diverse stakeholders and farmers and a lot of new training and education? There’s a lot of things that we could put it under a magnifying glass and really improve it.
Nora La Torre: (55:43)
And to answer your question of, okay, well, how do people get involved? We haven’t been posting that much about it yet, but we will be. So people can go to eatreal.org and go check out our newsletter. And I think we’ll be pointing there some really good coalitions that are emerging right now. So we will also be sharing what other coalitions people can sign up for news about it on.
Dr. Casey Means: (56:03)
Incredible. Okay, great. And we’ll link all those resources for sure in the show notes here. One thing we touched a little bit on is this pandemic proving the next generation and how nutrition plays into that. And you co-authored with Rob Lustig. One of our Levels advisors, one of my personal heroes, this incredible PDF report on the Eat Real website, that was about how processed food related diseases are directly contributing to the majority of underlying conditions that basically lead to worse COVID outcomes. I’d be interested to hear more insight around this, like what you’ve learned, and yeah, just paint the landscape for how you think real food could actually change the way we potentially face the lingering tale of COVID, but also any future pandemic that will inevitably come down the road.
Nora La Torre: (57:00)
Yeah. Lingering tale. It seems like we’re in another spike. I just saw in New York City alert go up. So this is like a long marathon. And yeah, there may be more. So how do we pandemic proof our society? We’ve been thinking that a lot. Yeah. Dr. Lusting published this and chef Dominic actually helped us launch it because she’s so passionate about real food as medicine. And it’s on our website, on the alert and insights on eatreal.org. And really our call to action was, look, there are important government policies that are in place right now too, vaccines weren’t even available yet, but the government was encouraging different interventions and they weren’t mentioning nutrition. It was just left out. And we felt like that was a dangerous and lethal omission.
Nora La Torre: (57:42)
And so we wanted to say that real food had the power to help people have functioning immune systems so that they can, if expose the COVID, they can have a normal immune response, a strong immune… An overactive immune response. And so that was why we wrote it. So what’s interesting is we did a bunch of data analysis and we found that, in the beginning of COVID, like October 2020, that 80% of New York City deaths had at least one comorbidity that was a processed food related disease. And then we also saw that, if someone their insulin spiked, that it actually… This blew my mind, that it actually created more coding for the virus to enter the cells and then it held the door open for the virus to enter. So it actually increased insulin, and…
Nora La Torre: (58:34)
Even from short term exposure to processed food related to processed food, actually cause an increase in severity complications, hospitalizations and death. So immediately like what we’re eating and how we’re fueling ourselves is impacting our ability to not be super impacted by COVID. And that has to do with like what we have access to, that’s where like, let’s make sure that people have access to meals at school, et cetera, and healthy meals wherever they are so that they can have a strong resilient society. Like that, we’re thinking how can people ring the bell on that.
Dr. Casey Means: (59:14)
Yeah. t’s one of the things that was maybe most disturbing to me about the entire pandemic was that, it almost became controversial to talk about food as something we could do to improve our resilience against the virus. Like, people would consider some of that like pseudoscience, because it wasn’t what was coming from the CDC. And even though there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of scientific papers showing things like, oh, if you’re deplete in these micronutrients, you have a higher risk. Or we know that these comorbidities are directly related to outcomes, and we know these comorbidities are processed food related. Somehow saying that, if you replace your processed food intake with real food, you may have better COVID outcomes, that was controversial to say. And I saw people getting slammed on this on social… It is the most perplexing thing-
Nora La Torre: (01:00:08)
Still getting slammed.
Dr. Casey Means: (01:00:09)
Yeah. I mean it’s absolutely perplexing. It’s like, are you… I mean, it makes me… This is like what keeps me up at night like, how do you connect these dots for people such that it… This is fairly obvious, if processed food is leading to these diseases, and these disease are worsening our COVID outcomes. And we understand a lot of the scientific mechanisms of why these comorbidities lead to worse COVID outcomes, like the one that you just mentioned, then let’s try and clean up these issues by using food as a way to reverse them.
Nora La Torre: (01:00:36)
What’s powerful is like, there will UCSF study that will show that, if you switch to real food and get off processed food… If you’re able to, it’s hard, it’s complicated, it’s not the individual, this is systemic issue. But as people are able to have access to that real food, within 10 days you can transform your metabolic health. Within 10 days you can have a more functioning, better functioning immune system. We can literally make ourselves and our society than our communities more resilient against this current spike against… Because we’re about…
Nora La Torre: (01:01:09)
When we wrote that, we have like 200,000 deaths, we’re about to be at a million. This is lost for people. And so I think it’s really critical that we start to think about it now and that we take it seriously now in the middle of this, and right now in this spike in the next 10 days, and then also going forward. And then I think also this is… I think a lot about how the food companies and pharma and the established industries are make nutrition really confusing. That’s why I love the concept of Levels. I’m not worried about it, but so… And I’m not involved, but I just like love the concept of it because, as people know and gain insight, they’re able to take more action. But I think this is becoming so personal for people.
Nora La Torre: (01:01:54)
The pandemic has affected everybody, but I think people are starting to see it impact their friends and families at an accelerated rate, just processed food related disease, not even thinking about the pandemic. And the big pharma, et cetera, have made it confusing to us, and big food and diabetes, even the name… We talked a lot about, how do we rename diabetes? That’s why we’re like, let’s just call it all processed food disease and call it what it is because calling it diabetes or not talking about how processed food can actually…
Nora La Torre: (01:02:27)
And sugar can feed cancer, people don’t know. Literally in nutritional intelligence and this stuff is made confusing on purpose to us to keep us doing these things. And so I’m like, how do we break it down for people? And I’m still learning and I’m still asking a lot of questions that I can help break it down because it’s still made to be really confusing. And so 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: (01:02:58)
Amen. I mean, yes. All the yes. Yes, yes. And I’m so happy to be connected so that we can, like you said, it’s all about coalition building and so much about awareness as well. And so I’m happy we’re having these conversations to end on just a sort of happy positive note, I think that… I was reading about this Rainbow Taco Challenge you guys did with students. And I think because we have a lot of listeners who are parents and always looking for ways to get their kids excited about healthy eating. Can you talk about just this challenge and how kid respond to this type of fun, interactive food experiences?
Nora La Torre: (01:03:37)
Yeah. So what we learned from this was like, make it fun, turn on the music, make it colorful, and do it together. I think those are like, if you can have a couple meal a week. Even just like do it together, have fun, put on the music and make it colorful. That is what we are seeing time and time again, whether it’s in a school lunch setting or whether it’s at home, et cetera. That gets people… Food makes us all become more alive. It can. And so have fun with it and make it a priority. And at everyone’s time crunch, so just… Once a week have that experience, make it an experience together and focus on it and it can be really, really powerful.
Nora La Torre: (01:04:17)
So what we did was… We do different really cool challenges. And so if you are like, set of people calls it, you are certified on social, you’ll be invited in challenge. So challenge serve. So what we did was we partnered with the incredible team at IDEO at the beginning of the pandemic. And they’re amazing. We loved them. And within three weeks, I think it was two, we did a sprint, where we did a design sprint and we designed a Rainbow Taco Challenge that went totally viral. It had like 20 million of potential reach. And the whole idea was people were starting to be…
Nora La Torre: (01:04:49)
People were at home and they wanted to take control of their home and they were looking for fun things to do. And so we launched on, it was mostly on Instagram, just coming out, just on the ride at that point, but mostly on Instagram. And so we got top chefs and athletes and influencers and tons of students and tons of parents and everyone, the whole idea was called the Rainbow Taco Challenge. And the Rainbow Taco Challenge got people… It was simple, it was like… That was the whole thing, keep it really simple. We were like, okay, like let’s cook colorfully together, let’s cook colorful foods, as many different vegetables, et cetera. We saved it on our Instagram. So people can go and check it out. If they want some food inspiration, some rainbow taco inspiration, we still make rainbow tacos at my house a lot.
Nora La Torre: (01:05:33)
The whole idea was like, cook rainbow, delicious, colorful nutrient dense foods together, and then challenge your friends. And we were also trying to get extra meals to family. So we did it as a fundraiser. It was a lot of fun. And we’ve done other challenges. We did a no added sugar challenge with all the YMCS of California. That was so awesome. And we’ll be doing some more fun challenges coming up.
Dr. Casey Means: (01:05:58)
I love it. Okay. So challenge for everyone listening, Rainbow Taco Challenge this week-
Dr. Casey Means: (01:06:03)
… Make as many colors as possible.
Nora La Torre: (01:06:06)
With the music on, make it fun, do it together.
Dr. Casey Means: (01:06:08)
Yes. Make it fun. I love that. It really brings up so many memories for me of… Now having a lot of friends who have young children and I’m so obsessed with cooking and plant-based cooking and color and all these things, when I get to go to their houses, the first thing I want to do with my friends, young kids who are like three, four or five years old is cook with them. Because it’s exactly like you said, it can be a party. I blast their favorite music. They get to choose on Spotify what we listen to, we get out all the colorful things from the fridge. I give them knives which their parents hate me for, but it’s like they-
Nora La Torre: (01:06:46)
Three year old dudes have better knifes to cut her strawberries. So yeah.
Dr. Casey Means: (01:06:50)
Exactly. And I’ve got a favorite, I think this is a Kelly Leveck recommendation, but a plastic knife that’s serrated, you can’t hurt yourself, but you can cut through vegetables. And so they get a special tool, it’s colorful, they’re on step stool. And then the other thing that’s been really fun is, I give them the basics, depending on the age, and then let them go. So if we’re making a pesto together, they get to choose how much of a handful of nutritional yeast and cashews, and picking recipes where they can’t screw it up, so they get to own like how much is…
Dr. Casey Means: (01:07:24)
And I have seen… Two things that come of that. And one is that, it’s built on my relationship with these kids. I think in a really special way, because they feel like they are being treated like an adult. And two, they are so much more likely to eat the food when they have had involved in taking responsibility for it. And so it makes me… Honestly, those experiences have made me actually even more excited to be a parent one day because I’m like, I think there’s going to be a challenge, of course, cause there’s a lot of cultural forces that make it difficult, but also it can be a really, really, really fun thing.
Dr. Casey Means: (01:07:55)
I may be really optimistic because of course I’m just popping in for like one day here and there with these families. But I think it’s like you said, it can be so, so fun when you bring this type of colorful, fun energy to it. I love that. I love ending on that note. If you have anything else you want to share with listeners before we end, the floor is yours, any calls to action or any final points, we’d love to hear anything you’d like to share.
Nora La Torre: (01:08:23)
I love that you do that. I think that is so awesome by the way, with your friend’s kids. And I will say, those are my favorite day with my family. And actually we do once in a while, not all time, but we do like special Saturday pancakes, but of course we’re trying to do them like, okay, how do we use really nutrient dense ingredients and things from the garden, et cetera, and seeing my daughter say, I’m chef at three and take control and wear her little apron and whatnot. And then tell me, mom don’t forget yours and just tell me what to do in the kitchen. Those are definitely my favorite dates. I love that.
Nora La Torre: (01:08:56)
I think in terms of what to do, I think just stay passionate. I think people that are listening right now are probably really passionate. So keep being passionate and learning out. I think join the conversation. We would love for people to get involved with us on LinkedIn. And on LinkedIn, if people want to… I like posting, I want to hear what you think about the different things where we’re discovering and that we’re seeing. On social media, on our website definitely, our newsletter shares a lot of resources that we’re going to be sharing a lot about the different coalitions and whatnot and doing a lot more video as well. Stay passionate, join the conversation. You can join our [email protected] eatreal.org. We of course need support. So we fund all of our work to work with schools.
Nora La Torre: (01:09:36)
So we have incredible angel donors, corporate partners, more government support, which is exciting to make these changes, but we fund all of our work with schools so that they can then buy higher quality ingredients, pay the chefs, et cetera. So we have a big wait list and we’re trying to let as many schools off of our wait list right now as possible. So if anyone has any ideas, personally, or with their company, et cetera, that can get involved and make a pledge and start to learn and make an impact with us, we would be so grateful for more support, we’re small and mighty, we’re like blueberries. We’re with good stuff fiber, but still on the rise. So we need all the help that we can get. So if you can give financial support, let us know. And/or like if you have a superpower that can help us build this movement, join in.