New food norm?

Chicoans weigh in on Michelle Obama’s claim that U.S. food culture has shifted

Shelly Blanshei, who has been part of the local restaurant scene for nearly two decades, says young people are more conscious of what they eat than ever before.

Shelly Blanshei, who has been part of the local restaurant scene for nearly two decades, says young people are more conscious of what they eat than ever before.


Compared to the national statistic of 75 percent from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Butte County Public Health Department says 59.2 percent of county adults are overweight or obese. The statewide figure is 59.8 percent.

What Barack Obama is to health care reform, Michelle Obama is to healthy living. During the time that the president has pushed for—and fought to preserve—Obamacare, the health insurance act that’s become synonymous with his name, his wife has become just as public a champion for nutrition and activity, particularly among children.

At an annual health conference held Feb. 26 in Washington, D.C., the first lady extolled the “culture change” the country has experienced over the past five years since she began spotlighting childhood obesity. As reported by The Associated Press, she referred to the progress as “incredibly fragile,” due to the risk of complacency and the opposition of special interests, but called healthier choices “the new norm.”

But is it our new norm in the North State? Has the local food culture shifted in ways that match this supposed national trend?

The CN&R posed that question to people with deep knowledge of the area’s food system. The answer is yes, albeit with a few asterisks: Not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon at the same time, with some already on board before it started rolling; anecdotal successes and statistical evidence don’t always correspond; and people can’t—or don’t—always get what they want.

Shelly Blanshei has been part of Chico’s food scene for 19 years, starting when she and husband Lance opened Bidwell Perk. In 2004 they launched Teaz Me—now T. Tea Bar & Fusion Café—where they serve a variety of teas and meals from two locations in Chico.

Locally, she says, “there’s definitely a shift in the food culture. People are much more aware of health and nutrition; what they put in their body is important.

“One of the shifts I’ve seen is we have more men coming into the store and eating our food than when we first opened, and we also have a lot of young men drinking tea,” she added. “What I see is that trend of the younger male … and college-age kids really enjoying the healthy part of what we offer.”

And when Blanshei interviews prospective employees—mostly young adults—and asks why they want to work at T Bar, “‘healthy’ is always the first thing that comes out of their mouth.”

Maria Venturino, a Chico restaurateur since 1997, has sensed change as well. She and her husband, Craig Thomas, previously catered to the tastes of fine-dining clientele at the Red Tavern. Now they co-own Farm Star Pizza, while Thomas also serves as executive chef at Enloe Medical Center.

Venturino sees the recent changes happening more at the institutional level—that is, hospitals and schools—than in smaller kitchens, because farm-to-table isn’t anything new for Chicoans with deep roots.

“Many people will actually laugh at this modern trend,” she said, “because grandma or great-grandmother was putting out apricots and corn and zucchini and all sorts of things as long as they can remember.

“It’s in our blood in Chico, and it just so happens that the new administration has adopted these guidelines for health reasons. Yes, it’s a good thing, and the institutions in Chico are paying attention … and are stepping it up when it comes to fresh farm-to-table food.”

Stephanie Bianco, associate professor of nutrition and food science at Chico State, says the issues involved are extremely complex, with elements that shade the appearance of improvement.

“Americans want to be healthy and want to feed their children healthy foods,” Bianco said. “But the fact is 75 percent of adults—75 percent—in the United States are overweight, obese or morbidly obese. To say that we’re making progress is a little deceptive.”

Bianco’s statistic comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The food culture in general lacks an awareness of food,” she continued. “There’s kind of a distorted or manipulated awareness that exists right now.”

For instance, marketing may mislead consumers. Packaging can have a label “making claims such as ‘all natural’ or ‘100 percent natural’ or ‘100 percent real fruit’—even the word ‘organic,’” Bianco said. Yet, if the food inside is a product of processing, “it’s an illusion for consumers that they’re eating healthy.”

Also assistant director at Chico State’s Center for Healthy Communities, Bianco acknowledges that demand for natural and organic food has increased, but says the driving forces behind food purchases remain taste, price and convenience.

A true seismic shift will occur as a result of educational institutions responding appropriately to policy change, she argues. For instance, the nutritional standards for school lunches are now higher, but districts’ spending must increase to replace cheaper processed items with fresh whole foods.

Locally, at least, consumers have options.

Blanshei points out that Chico long has been a hotbed for health aficionados, including paleo diet pioneer Robb Wolf, whose “eat real foods” paradigm would be impossible in a locale without farmers’ markets and grocers such as Chico Natural Foods and S&S Organic Produce and Natural Foods.

“It starts with the national movement—people are more aware of things—and then I think Chico has a lot of that to offer in those places,” Blanshei said. “Definitely a lot of people in Chico are health-conscious because they’re just that way … but definitely a lot of people are on the bandwagon because of what’s happening in the news and the help of Michelle Obama.”

Eatery-wise, Venturino sees a handful of restaurants in Chico trying to implement Buy Fresh Buy Local, though customers aren’t always willing to spend more money for that.

“Everybody wants to,” she said. “It’s just a matter of whether they can afford to—and that’s sad.”