By Ed Carpenter, USF Magazine News Editor
The University of San Francisco’s Wolfram Alderson is waging a national campaign to save American lives by changing the way we eat. If he succeeds, it won’t be the first time. As a founding organizer of one of the first farmers’ markets in California and the nation in 1979, he helped galvanize the spread of farmers markets across the country and promote organic, farm-to-table food.
Now, Alderson has teamed up with Dr. Robert Lustig, renowned UC San Francisco researcher and The New York Times bestselling author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease to wean Americans off their sugar addiction. The pair co-founded the Institute for Responsible Nutrition (IRN) to educate consumers about the health risks of sugar and processed foods, especially fructose, said Alderson, whose master’s degree in organizational development honed his food systems and social work background into skills that helped him to found and run IRN.
“The obesity pandemic is entirely preventable,” Alderson said. “Thirty years ago, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar) in children and adolescents was almost non-existent. Today, over 20,000 have it.”
IRN debunks common myths about processed foods by promoting nutrition research and science-based decisions by consumers, nutrition experts, and policymakers; supports community garden projects, health clinics, and farmers markets; and partners with schools to educate young people.
“What I learned at USF is that it isn’t enough to simply protest, march, or occupy (albeit, worthy elements of social change themselves),” Alderson said. “Systems change means digging in over the long haul to administer, to fix, and, in some cases, to disrupt and replace broken systems.”
At Mt. Diablo High School in Contra Costa County, Alderson and Lustig are collaborating with teacher Cindy Gershen to replicate an innovative nutritional science program. Students learn about fresh food and how to cook healthy, but they also study food history and culture, the role of food in religion, and the chemistry and business of food.
The program has improved students’ diets (many have shed pounds) and been featured in local newspapers. “I’m working with Wolfram and Dr. Lustig to make it transportable, so that any school anywhere can do it,” said Gershen, who is also a chef, restaurateur, and the founder of the nonprofit Wellness City Challenge.