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Allison advocates healthy eating as Dole culinary director

KANNAPOLIS — Education is the most important factor in eating healthy, says Dole Foods’ new Culinary Nutrition Director Mark Allison.

Allison is filling a new position created at Dole’s North Carolina Research Campus office. He started work at the research campus earlier this summer. Dole Nutrition Institute Director Nick Gillitt announced Allison’s hiring last week. Most recently, Allison was the dean of culinary arts at the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. He was also the dean of culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University.

Although he’s new on the job, Allison is already hard at work writing cookbooks and developing community outreach programs, such as healthy cooking classes.

“To me, everything comes down to education,” Allison said. “If you’re not educated, you don’t know what items to eat.”

His education in healthy eating and cooking began early. Allison said his mother was a talented cook. His father was an avid gardener. On Sunday afternoons, he recalled frequently helping to prepare dinner as a child.

Allison, reared in northeastern England, said job opportunities in his town were limited after high school. He could have worked in a mine, shipyard or coal factory. In school, however, Allison opted to take home economics classes.

“I was the only boy in a class of 20 girls,” Allison joked. “It wasn’t just cooking. It was home economics, which involved ironing, stitching and things like that. All my other friends were involved in things like metal work. I was kind of looked at as girly by my friends.”

After class Allison joked that he was the center of attention. He’d exit home economics with cookies or cake, and his friends had wooden carvings.

Immediately after school, Allison became a chef. His first full-time job was at a four-star hotel.

At 24, however, he decided to return to school. He spent five years studying culinary arts, received a teaching certificate and earned a master’s degree in business administration.

He began to find a niche in cooking after winning a scholarship for an exchange program in the late 1990s. He hoped to be placed in California as part of the program. Out of the 500 participating teachers, however, the only other chef was from Alaska.

A few months into his time in Alaska, one of Allison’s sons — Matthew — became sick. Later, the son was diagnosed with type one diabetes.

“He ended up being in intensive care for a week, and we realized then we needed to change our eating habits to suit his,” Allison said.

Allison said changes in his family’s personal eating habits directly translated into his professional life. A culinary teacher at the time, Allison said he more frequently focused on healthy eating.

He has also been a board member on the American Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In 2012, he also won the American Diabetes Association’s Father of the Year Award.

Allison said his belief in healthy eating grew deeper following the death of his wife from cancer earlier this year. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. Allison said she was given four years to live, but may have exceeded the prognosis because of healthy eating habits.

“I honestly believe she was able to live longer because of adopting a plant-based diet, instead of buying fast food or buying boxed food at a supermarket,” he said. “I used to tell my students at Johnson and Wales University that there’s only one thing we all have in common. There’s nothing that we are all the same at, except that we all have 24 hours in the day, and what matters is what you’re going to do with your 24 hours and what I’m going to do with mine.”

Allison said his job will largely involve advocating healthy eating habits to community members.

“We’re not saying don’t eat meat or don’t eat carbohydrates, but if you eat more fruits and vegetables, it’s going to improve your diet,” he said. “Plant-based food items are a whole food, because a plant is not going to grow and add preservatives. It will only take up what’s in the soil.”

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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