Secret Weapon Against Childhood Obesity: A Magazine



To try the recipe for a Green Eggs (and No Ham) Sandwich, adapted from ChopChop magazine, click here.

Last spring, with the help of a few great friends, I launched ChopChop, a non-profit quarterly food magazine for kids aged five to 12 and their families. ChopChop's mission is to educate kids to cook and be nutritionally literate, and to empower them to establish better eating habits for a lifetime of good nutrition. Our vision is to reverse and prevent childhood obesity, and our goal is to get a copy in the hands of every child.

I may be new to the nutrition field, but I'm certainly not new to writing about food. I've been writing cookbooks forever—21 books in 25 years—and I couldn't love a profession any more. There was probably no better way for me to make a living than spending my days cooking, eating, thinking about food, talking about food, reading about food, feeding friends and family, and making them happy by doing so (especially when they got to critique carte blanche). But 17 years ago, when my daughter Lauren was born with a chronic disease so rare it isn't even classified as an "orphan disease," writing cookbooks began to feel like an empty profession.

It became obvious that there was a need for ChopChop, and that to get to doctors I needed to be a non-profit (I re-started Kid2Kid) and raise money.

I didn't want to spend my time not mattering, so I turned to health care, both for answers to her illness and to give back a little. I joined three boards and spearheaded a few hospital projects. While I found the bureaucracy absolutely frustrating and silly, I decided I needed a career change. But honestly, it was clear I didn't have the necessary skills. So instead, I wrote more cookbooks. And I helped my then seven-year-old daughter with her self-inspired project: She brought toys to kids in the hospital in a little red wagon. We formed a non-profit and called it Kid2Kid.

And then, two years ago, sitting in a stranger's living room listening to Tony Lake, foreign policy adviser to then-candidate Barack Obama, I had a sudden insight: I knew without a doubt that Obama would win, and I decided then and there that I wanted to be his executive chef. (Tony can vouch for my hubris. I brought him hot chocolate chip cookies to win him over.) Fat chance! But I realized that I did, in fact, have the skills and maybe more importantly the passion to help address childhood obesity.

Over the next few months, an idea took shape that matched my skills to my goals: I would give recipes to pediatricians to distribute during well-child visits. Kids would learn to cook and take some responsibility for their own health. They would have fun, bond with their parents or caregivers, and stop eating so much damn junk. They would achieve nutritional literacy. This could be my own "little red wagon" project.

I called Barry Zuckerman, chief of pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital. I knew Barry because when other hospital administrators seemed more worried about whether wheeling toys through hospital corridors violated arcane regulations, he wholeheartedly supported it. I knew that not only did Barry think outside the box, he barely knew there was a box. He loved the idea of ChopChop and pushed me to get more feedback from other doctors. Literally every single pediatrician said, "Bring it on!"

My son's pediatrician, Dan Slater at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, actually asked, "Can you get it to me in two weeks?" In spite of my excitement, I challenged him: Would he really have time to talk about cooking with a patient when he had only 30 minutes to cover an endless array of topics, among them seat belts, bike safety, oral hygiene, physical hygiene, physical activity (including the dictum to learn to swim), boundary setting and rules, sleep habits, school, growth and development, strangers, sport safety, safety at home, healthy friendships, and bullying?

His unequivocal response was yes. He told me he talked about healthy eating all day long with his patients. "But I have no tools. If you give me healthy recipes, then I'm not just talking about it; I'm giving my patients something they can really use."

It became obvious that there was a need for ChopChop, and that to get to doctors I needed to be a non-profit (I re-started Kid2Kid) and raise money. The first one into the money pool was Boston Medical Center, Barry's hospital, of course. When other hospitals heard that Barry was in, that got their competitive juices flowing, and they followed as well.

As the concept evolved from a pamphlet to a real magazine, I reached out to Gary Hirshberg at Stonyfield Farms and Larry Witt at OXO kitchen products, both friends whose companies are committed to supporting nutrition. Both came in quickly as sponsors. I recruited a team of award-winners: I called Steve Slon, the seasoned editor who revamped and revitalized AARP The Magazine. He jumped in and brought with him co-worker and brilliant creative director Andrzej Janerka. I also called photographer Carl Tremblay, who has photographed five of my books: when I need a photographer, I never think of anyone else. They all worked tirelessly and pro-bono.



I also called close friends: I asked writer Susan Orlean to interview 12-year-old Orren Fox, who shares her, um, obsession and love for chickens. To complete the full circle I asked food writer/editor John Willoughby to be on my quickly emerging advisory board of luminaries (not only had he written about me for Steve, he had also been on the original Kid2Kid board). I read everything on obesity I could get my hands on and if someone struck me as smart or interesting, I called them. And when it made sense, I asked them to be on my advisory board: Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist Walter Willett was first in, and once he joined, I asked away. No one said no, and it never occurred to me not to ask. It's easy when you're asking for time or money when the mission is to help kids.

It started to snowball. More hospitals came in. Then Barry sent an email blast to hundreds of pediatricians, and we got close to 100 percent participation. That was enough support to print the first issue, 150,000 copies, with tons of pro-bono support from some top publishing and marketing professionals. We got kids to try out recipes, read and review text, test mazes and word searches, and model for the magazine. We didn't include anything that hadn't been vetted by kids and experts in every relevant field: our advisory board even includes a former Sesame Street wiz.

The first issue came out last spring and the response was wildly enthusiastic, based on feedback from doctors, hospitals, and parents. While our original intent was to distribute exclusively through pediatricians, we got requests from just about every sector, including grocery stores (ChopChop is sold at Whole Foods Markets across the country), farmers' markets, after-school programs (Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA's), schools (Mayor Joe Curtatone bought copies for every elementary-school student in Somerville, Massachusetts), WIC programs, and several food banks. ChopChop is distributed in every state and on two American Indian reservations. In the first issue we included a recipe for congee, Asian rice porridge, which I was told more than once not to include. It's the favorite recipe on one of the reservations and at the Harlem Children's Zone.

Our second issue—200,000 copies—was just printed. At the same time, we received an endorsement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, and major funding from the New Balance Foundation, which places a high priority on addressing the health of underserved and low-income children nationwide. They and other sponsors will be needed to keep growing our circulation. Our goal is to put copies in the hands of all 28 million school-age children in the U.S.

So the truth is, I am still doing the same things I did as a cookbook writer: cooking, eating, thinking about food, talking about food, reading about food, feeding friends and family—but now there's a difference. Now it feels like it matters.

As a sample of what we do, here's an easy recipe from our recent fall issue:

Recipe: Green Eggs (and No Ham) Sandwich