February 28, 2013

Keep it healthy, keep it fresh

Preston Maring, MD, has been an ob-gyn physician with the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland (Calif.) since 1971, but he may be best known for his pioneering work in establishing Kaiser Permanente’s first farmers market there nearly 10 years ago. He has also been instrumental in helping other Kaiser Permanente medical centers open farmers markets (there are now more than 50 markets and farm stands at Kaiser Permanente locations across the country, 25 in the Northern California Region), and in working to ensure there’s fresh local food on Kaiser Permanente hospital trays and in cafeterias.

What prompted you to start the first farmers market?

After many years of practice, it was clear to me that what people eat makes a huge difference in their health. Plus, having been around a long time, I appreciated the employees, patients and community members who visited my medical center. It seemed like an organic farmers market was something that Kaiser Permanente could offer that would be fun, festive and good for everyone’s health.

As a group, doctors are becoming more and more aware of the impact of obesity on our patients, and the clear link between diet and obesity. We’re also becoming increasingly aware that pesticides and other chemicals in our food also impact health, and this is especially important for women who may become pregnant or who are pregnant.

How does shopping at a farmers market improve your health?

We recently did a survey of our farmers market patrons across the country. As a result of coming to the market, 76 percent said they had increased their intake of fruits and vegetables.

On average, only about 15 percent of Americans eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And five is a minimum recommendation; we ought to be eating close to nine. We have young men in some of our patient populations where fewer than 5 percent eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Convenience and speed have become so important in our society that we end up eating food out of boxes and packages that is loaded with fat, sugar and salt.

Is shopping and cooking fresh expensive?

There is that perception, but if you look at the facts you’ll find that’s not true. Simple example: If you go to a fast-food restaurant with a family of four, and get three burgers, one order of nuggets, four orders of French fries and four sodas, you’ll end up paying 25 to 28 dollars. But if you pick up a chicken to roast, a couple of potatoes to bake, a bowl full of fresh spinach, and you make your own vinaigrette, you can make dinner for 15 bucks for four people, easily.

There’s this myth that shopping at a farmers market and cooking from whole, fresh foods is expensive, but you can absolutely cook healthy, tasty food and save money. It does take time. However, there are tricks you can use to save time. You can roast two chickens on Sunday — only eat one — and then have leftovers for another night. Or when you make a pot of soup or a stew, freeze half of it for another meal.

What advice can you offer for someone just getting started cooking fresh?

Everyone should have a sharp chef’s knife, two cutting boards (one for fish and poultry, one for fruits and vegetables) and a salad spinner. You can go to my farmers market recipe blog for ideas on how to cook with produce that’s in season now, or search the site for past recipes. I also have a series of short videos with simple instructions for basic prepping and cooking skills.

Just remember: It doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t let the cooking shows and fancy chefs make you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. The more you practice, the quicker and easier it will be to whip up something fresh and fantastic.

If you can get back to whole, fresh foods that you prepare yourself, you can save money, and it can taste amazing. Sharpen your knife, get your whole family involved and have fun creating a healthier future.