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PRESS COVERAGE

FOOD EXPERT IS SETTING A PLACE FOR EMPOWERMENT

Chicago Tribune
Wednesday, February 23, 2000

Ellen Haas is a conversational magician with a very practical agenda when it comes to food and health. "We need to harness the new technology to empower the consumer," she declares during a recent visit to Chicago.

Poof! Moments later her vivid description has evoked the image of an "electronic farmers' market" and with it the opportunity to order healthy products on-line that either will be delivered or picked up at a nearby market, part of a national network of independent retailers.

To prepare these foods in ways to take maximum advantage of their nutritional assets, she conjures up a selection of recipes from a panel of chef advisers of the caliber of Alice Waters and Rick Bayless. No magic needed. The panel already exists.

So does a Web site, FoodFIT.Com, which debuted in January, hard on the heels of the publication of Haas' book "Great Adventures in Food" (St.Martin's Press, $25).

The Web site is the vortex of her vision. It can be used interactively to measure a person's dietary and fitness habits and calculate "weight management." Then an "organizer" can be used to plan meals personalized to the person's needs. The suggestions then may be checked off against a list of kitchen essentials, a "pantry stocker," and the recipe data bank. A personalized shopping list emerges that will be filled through the market procedure outlined above.

If this seems ambitious, it is. A lot of pieces will have to fall into place before this puzzle is complete. But Haas is no stranger to uphill challenges involving food and nutrition.

In the mid-1970s, concern about food quality and food prices (the former going down, the latter skyrocketing) led her, the mother of two children, to organize a consumer council in Maryland.

Inside the Beltway, she gained the attention of Congress and the national food industry in the 1980s when, as founder of the respected consumerist group Public Voice, she built bridges between consumer activists and the nutrition establishment. In the next decade, as Under-Secretary of Agriculture, Haas oversaw the first updating of nutritional standards for the national school lunch program to bring them in line with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines.

Now, her full-time involvement in the on-line project and the book spring from her belief that "the best way to make meaningful changes in the food supply is by creating more informed consumers. This will lead to grassroots demand for foods that promote health and help us move away from fad diets."

She hastens to add, "This is not aimed at the gourmet upscale market.
It's about improving product quality. It's about education, turning mainstream consumers into confident cooks.

"We'll have on-line cooking classes on how to use ingredients, seasonal guides to fresh fruits and vegetables," she says. "We'll encourage food preparations that nurture and please families, hoping they will share them at table together."

"Great Adventures in Food," meanwhile, is a blueprint for healthy living based on a diet that combines sound nutrition with food that is "truly tasty." Divided into two parts, it begins with a guided tour through the supermarket of today, pointing out how to maximize "nutritional punch," take advantage of "healthy time-savers" and stock a "full-flavor pantry." The second part, titled "Cooking Adventures at Home," is recipe-oriented. The design is lively and there are plenty of tips and "trivia" to erase any suggestion of a nutrition tomb.




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