Derek Sarno, Global Senior Chef and Educator on the Whole Foods Market’s Healthy Eating team, supports the company’s healthy revolution initiative by training chefs to prepare food for the program and provides training and support for staff including Healthy Eating Specialists.
Derek’s experience includes many years as chef/consultant for an international Tibetan Buddhist monastery, restaurateur, caterer, vegan organic farmer, food designer, consultant, food writer and educator of vegan, vegetarian and animal-based cuisines.
He has owned several restaurants and catering businesses in the Northeast US and his expertise includes macrobiotic and diabetic diets. He founded South Hill Farm in South Berwick, Maine, a sustainable farm and learning center dedicated to providing the community with vegan and organically grown foods and culinary education.
Together Derek and I explored Whole Foods’ new Health Starts Here program and discussed how consumers can implement the program in their daily lives.
GoodFood World: The Health Starts Here prepared foods are a great idea if they avoid the “ultra-processing” that so many conventional packaged goods involve. What is the platform on which you’re developing these ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook foods?
Derek: As part of the Healthy Eating initiative, I teach other chefs to prepare foods that follow our four foundational pillars: whole food, plant-strong, nutrient dense, healthy fats. We use nothing processed whatsoever. For example, we use less oil and the fats we do use we get from avocados and nuts; they are not extracted or fractionated oils.
While our program is heavily based on vegetables, it is not vegan or vegetarian but incorporates vegetables, grains, beans, seeds, legumes and other nutrient dense foods.
For prepared meals labeled Health Starts Here, we use 3 ounces or less of meat or fish per serving. We are always focused on the vegetable in the dish; the meat is more of a condiment.
GoodFood World: As part of the Health Starts Here program, there are new frozen vegetable alternatives – like collard greens, kale, and leafy greens. How do you anticipate the average consumer, whose vegetable selection includes primarily potatoes, onions, tomatoes and head lettuce, will adopt these options?
Derek: Our best opportunity is to make these vegetable alternatives available and educate our customers. Up until recently, kale has been treated as a garnish; old school chefs never cooked with it.
Now to get it into the mainstream, we have to show people how to use it, how good it is for you. A lot of people don’t like certain things, but there are plenty of options out there. Folks eat pretty much the same things all the time, if they could just step out and try something new every now and then.
We have to encourage people to try it so they will learn how good it tastes. My job is to train team members so they can talk to the customers about these vegetable options.
GoodFood World: How is the Health Starts Here program going to help the average consumer on a really tight budget to afford to purchase, prepare and eat “good food?” How are you planning to bring good food to a wider audience?
Derek: A big misconception is that it’s more expensive to eat healthy, when it really isn’t. It just takes more time and mindfulness to prepare your own food.
Knowing how to cook is one of the main obstacles for most people: they either don’t know how to cook or don’t have the time to cook. If you can learn how to cook a few things and buy right, you can feed yourself well. Over the long run it’s cheaper.
It might take a little longer to prepare, but in the long run buying processed food or eating out is more expensive. It’s also more costly for your health, because you’re most likely not eating things that are best for you.
GoodFood World: I love the idea of an “in-store healthy eating point person!” Sort of an ombudsman for good food… Is this person a dietician or nutrition expert? Will there be one per store or will they be shared between stores? Will you be adding “good food” cooking classes as part of your education outreach?
Derek: The “in-store healthy eating point person” is called a Healthy Eating Specialist. Most often there is one in each store, but the program is still evolving so there may not be one for every store yet. We’re working towards it.
This person holds classes, they’re available for guided tours and to point out the healthy eating items, they can explain the program. The Healthy Eating Specialists work with us on the Global Healthy Eating Team. We keep them aware of what’s new and what’s going on. We train them and they help train the team members and talk to the customers.
Most are trained dietitians and nutritionists, but they are also customer and team member support.
In some stores we have built in kitchens and class facilities, not every store does. Yes, the Healthy Eating Specialists also put on healthy eating classes.
GoodFood World: I imagine there are lots of food producers who would like to partner with you on your Healthy Eating initiatives. How does a vendor get into this program?
Derek: I do work with outside vendors, but they have to follow our guidelines. If a producer has a product that they would like to offer us, they need to first meet our four foundational pillars – “whole food, plant-strong, nutrient dense, healthy fat” – to be considered for the program.
In the “back of the house,” where we prepare our Healthy Eating dishes, we have three principles: minimal to no oil, sweeteners have to come from whole fruits, very little sodium. If vendors have ingredients that meet those requirements, we will consider them. If they are willing to work with us, we are glad to have them on board.
GoodFood World: Thanks, Derek!
Good food isn’t a luxury, but a necessity. Healthy shopping and eating in today’s fast paced society means that consumers need to shop not where they get the cheapest food items, but where they find the best “good food.”
Natural food markets like Whole Foods Market are helping to educate consumers to shop for and store food, to prepare weekly food budgets, to balance daily meals, and to do it more economically and efficiently. These are social responsibilities that we look to natural food retailers to embrace.
For more information about Whole Foods Market Health Starts Here program, visit this webpage.