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Move over, James Beard awards. While most food lovers have heard of the national awards conferred by the James Beard Foundation, they may not be aware that Boston has its own special awards for those making a difference in the local food world.

Every June, Boston’s focus on local food ratchets up a notch, as excitement builds for The Readable Feast, an annual event organized by Louisa Kasdon and Annie Copps. It’s a celebration of New England cookbook authors, food writing, and culinary books about New England foodways, and two major award presentations lead off the event, recognizing individuals who have made a difference to people in New England and beyond.

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Mary Ann Esposito and last year’s winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Chef Jasper White

This year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, “honoring a New Englander for their achievements as a positive role model, mentor, and numerous contributions to food and cooking,” was presented to prolific, legendary cookbook author and host of PBS’ Ciao Italia series, Mary Ann Esposito.

The second accolade, named for Oldways’ founder, is the K. Dun Gifford Local Hero Award, honoring “a New Englander who through some medium of food (author, writer, educator, chef, grower, producer, activist, nutritionist) has positively affected our local foodways.”

This year’s winner of the K. Dun Gifford Local Hero Award is a long-time friend and collaborator, Walter Willett of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (pictured at top receiving the award from Porter Gifford and Oldways President Sara Baer-Sinnott). While it’s true that Walter and the HSPH are local to Boston, the impacts of Walter Willett’s career are felt far beyond the borders of New England. 

Here’s one simple example. I recently spoke at a conference on the Mediterranean Diet at the Vatican. It was a full day of speeches — and every single presentation included Walter Willett. Amazingly, there wasn’t a speech without a study or a reference to Walter’s far-reaching work. 

Back at The Readable Feast’s award ceremony at the Boston Public Library, the scope of Walter’s work presented me with a dilemma: With only 5 minutes to speak, introducing Walter as the K. Dun Gifford Local Hero honoree was no easy feat. I had to choose only a few of his remarkable achievements. I called it the Walter Willett Hit Parade: accomplishments that have made a difference in the lives and health of people almost everywhere. 

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Oldways Founder K. Dun Gifford; Image Courtesy Harvard Magazine
  1. At a time when Americans were afraid of fat, with Oldways and colleagues at the HSPH and overseas, Walter helped create the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, featuring olive oil. He helped popularize using healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, peanuts, and avocados in an overall healthy diet like the Mediterranean Diet, instead of low-fat diets that were actually full of sugar and refined carbohydrates. 
  2. Trans fats! Trans fats are those partially-hydrogenated oils food manufacturers once used freely to make foods more cheaply, to prolong shelf life, and to enhance flavor — fats that turned out to be incredibly unhealthy and dangerous. Walter led the campaign in the US to get rid of trans fats in our food supply — and he succeeded. In fact, in June 2015, the FDA ruled that artificial trans fats must disappear from the American diet and gave food manufacturers three years to remove the partially-hydrogenated oils from their products. Only one more year to go!
  3. Sugar-sweetened beverages. While these drinks haven’t yet disappeared from store shelves, the demand for these beverages is at a 30-year low in the US, and you have Walter in part to thank for this. 
  4. In today’s world of fake news (Believe me! The nutrition world has fake news too!), Walter is a calm voice of reason, backed by some of the best nutrition research studies, especially ones that he developed with his team at the HSPH (three large-population cohorts following more than 300,00 people). Walter is still at it every day, speaking up against crazy headlines with solid science and simple explanations. Along with everything else, he’s published more than 1,700 original scientific papers along with the textbook Nutritional Epidemiology and four books with food and cooking advice for the general public.

There’s no one like him. Thank you Walter — from Dun, from me, and from all of us. We are grateful for what you have accomplished. We know there is more to come.

Sara Baer-Sinnott, Oldways President


Jean Entine
Sara, what a stunning "hit parade" you provided of Walter's impact. Congratulations , Walter!

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