Monday, March 3, 2014

Food, Relationships and Health: A Family History

As a Jewish-American, I am part of a culture in which food plays an integral role. In my family, however, it seems to go beyond the shared Jewish cultural history. A few years ago, I had the chance to stand on a hill in southern Poland, about two hours from Krakow, the closest major city, on the spot where my father lived as a child, and -- with his family -- ran a small restaurant and inn, providing shelter and food to the surrounding community. The Holocaust ended that endeavor. My father had, thankfully, moved along before then (tragically, not most of his brothers and sisters), but the family history stayed with him. In the United States, he, too, pursued the family food business, owning a small food store in New York City throughout his adult working life. I grew up bagging groceries and watching my father talk to the people in the store, understanding that his personal relationship with those people was as important as the food they were buying. When the larger supermarkets started popping up, my father would jokingly say that his pricing strategy was “nobody oversells me” -- meaning his prices were higher than larger stores. He knew he could not compete with a large chain that had buying power. But my father had the back of his envelope, on which he kept track of the interest-free credit he gave to people who needed food --a symbol of the personal relationships he had with his customers.

I watched and learned – and I continued the family tradition of interest in and support of food, except from a medical point of view. I ended up first in gastroenterology and then as a research fellow in nutrition, eventually becoming Board-certified in nutrition.  But I also continued another part of the family tradition – a belief that personal relationships were another form of nutrition. Nutrition for the soul, perhaps, but no less important than the food one puts into one’s mouth. I came to believe, both from watching my father -- and also from watching my mother prepare traditional food with love (from gefilte fish to pierogies) that food was part of the personal relationships that truly make life worth living.  I knew, from the way my mother invited total strangers into our home for dinner when there was a holiday or an occasion of any type, that there was a lot more to eating than the fuel the body needed, and that, in life, one should nourish others in many different ways.

My family history also led me to remain focused on the relationships I had with my individual patients. It further led to my career developing health strategies and managed care systems that were focused on individual relationships and individual needs, when I perceived around me a depersonalization of care systems.  When we started Accolade, it was out of this belief -- shared by all involved --that forming relationships with people, providing them with the nourishment of a friend and a helper when they were in need, was the right way to try and save our healthcare system. We have been proved correct, and with each person we help, I think about my father and my mother and what they taught me.

While my own career over time veered toward healthcare relationships and became less focused on food, my son, Rob Spiro, continued the family tradition of feeding others. He started a company Good Eggs which is also built on food and relationships. It fosters the nutrition and the personal, even emotional, aspect of good food being produced by people who care, and delivered (both literally and figuratively) to people who need that food. When he started the company, he called me and said, “Dad, I’m a grocer!” He has now taken his company to the point at which it is starting to change the paradigm of food production and distribution in ways my father, and his parents in rural Poland, would never have imagined. As I watched this video about Good Eggs, I could not help but see the unbroken link from my father’s family in Poland, to my father, to me and now to my son as we all try to feed the body and the soul.