Doctor’s orders: Eat your greens says Preston Maring

Here’s a notion that hardly seems radical: longtime Berkeley resident Dr. Preston Maring thinks physicians should prescribe healthy eating along with dispensing drugs to their patients.

Maring, Associate Physician-in-Chief at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, believes doctors should also walk the walk about the preventive health benefits of sound nutrition.

He’s so committed to the good food cause he’s willing to show other medical professionals how to mince garlic and whip up vinaigrette from scratch for a home-made salad.

Dr Maring has worked for Kaiser for almost four decades. During his tenure he’s delivered babies as an obstetrician, worked in hospital administration, and spearheaded the creation of its new pediatric neurosurgery unit. But Maring, who learned to feed himself at a young age with a nudge from mom, may be best known for starting an organic farmers’ market at his hospital in 2003.

Since then, 35 markets have sprung up in Kaiser facilities in five states, serving employees, members, and the greater community.

Dr. Preston Maring.

A former W. K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society Policy Fellow, Maring came late to food advocacy in his career. But he’s making up for lost time. He has worked to get more fresh, local food into Kaiser hospitals and forged ties with sustainable farmers, including the nonprofit Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), where he is on the board.

In October he hosted a Food for Health Forum for health professionals in San Francisco.

Improving food at Kaiser, which runs the largest nonprofit healthcare system in the country, has the potential to impact a lot of eaters. The provider and insurer has about 8 million members, 15,000 doctors, and 165,000 employees, mostly in the western states.

As reported on Berkeleyside previously, the Bay Area is a hot-bed for hospital food reform. Still, the good doctor knows that encouraging folks to eat better may be as big a challenge as improving hospital food.

He’s had some experience dealing with adversity: an accident when he was 6 left him blind in one eye, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a surgeon.

On the food front, the physician knows he’s fighting an uphill battle. Obesity rates are on the rise, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are skyrocketing, recent data suggests that most American barely eat any fruits and vegetables — let alone the recommended “five a day”.

But to Maring, who, along with his medical-student chef son, was the subject of a recent New York Times profile, this just means there’s work to be done. To that end, the enthusiastic home cook shares recipes on his blog, offers kitchen wisdom in short web videos, sends cooking tips via Twitter, and conducts a culinary road-show of sorts, teaching new hospital employees basic cooking skills.

Maring, 65, lives with his wife near Berkeley’s Rose Garden and has called this city home for 40 years. We spoke the day before Maring hosted the recent Food for Health Forum.

Why this issue?

If people had a few key tools in the kitchen and some simple techniques to use them they’d be much more likely to eat better and be healthier.

What’s your public health message?

A couple of cutting boards, a sharp knife, and a salad spinner are the best public health tools we have.

Where do you shop for healthy food?

The Thursday Berkeley Farmers’ Market – I stand there and marvel at the abundance. I know a lot of the farmers now, like Judith Redmond from Full Belly Farm. I have tremendous respect for what they do. Also Monterey Market, even though it’s a crazy, crowded jungle of people. There is so much good food. The place is bonkers and I love it.

Do you mostly eat in or out?

We tend to eat at home. My wife cooks, I do a little more in the kitchen. I make a little of everything. My son has taught me a lot of tricks but I’m basically a self-taught cook. I make my own pizza crust. I cook simple, seasonal fare like roasted chicken with a side of rainbow chard. There are lots of foods I haven’t attempted. You never run out of opportunities to try new kinds of food because you usually eat three times a day.

Where do you like to eat out?

When our son, who lives in New York, comes to visit we go to Sea Salt. It’s a bit of a ritual now. The restaurant is friendly and the food is tasty. You can get a big bowl of steaming mussels or squid with gigante beans. I love what they do with eggplant, they purée it and deep-fry it.

Any local gourmet guilty pleasures?

I was a diehard Peet’s drinker for years. I was introduced to Blue Bottle Coffee at a farmers’ market. I’ve been having an illicit relationship with it ever since. When I go past Peet’s now I try to avert my eyes.

Are there any local food folks you admire?

Michael Pollan and Mollie Katzen, of course, both of whom I invited to speak at the Food for Health Forum. Also Brenda Eskenazi from UC for her research on the effects of pesticide exposure on farm workers and their children. Her work can really open people’s eyes to the true cost of pesticides. If people fully understood the health dangers associated with conventional farming they wouldn’t complain about the cost of organics.

Any final advice, doctor?

My mantra is: if a guy like me can do it, you can do it.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

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