How People Eat: Fort Wayne City Councilman Mitch Harper

Most of what I know about Mitch Harper comes from his blog, Fort Wayne Observed, or newspaper dispatches from my husband and others covering his exploits as a city councilman.

But he’s also been a state legislator, historian, Mensa member, ultra-long distance runner and race organizer.

Of all the stories I’ve heard about Mitch over the years — like the time he rode his bike from Aboite Township to a council meeting, for instance — I’ve never heard anything to indicate he’s given much thought to food or the act of eating.

But then again, given that he seems to think about everything under the sun, how could he not?

Q. How much do you typically run per week? Training for any big races at this point?

A: Not enough is the big answer.  And not as much as I used to run.  I am a big fan of running in the early evening; that’s a little tough when one is sitting at a public meeting – particularly tough when you walk inside when there is a sunny and soft June evening outside.
I am not training for any big races right now. I would like to get enough of a training base under me to enjoy a series of trail runs next year.  My niece and her husband live in Atlanta so we have spent the last two Independence Days in Georgia to experience the Peachtree 10K – one of the largest races in the nation.

It is some way from the days I was doing several 50K and 50 mile trail runs in a season – let alone the year I completed the Mohican 100 Mile race.

Q. Do you think much about what you eat, or do you figure that your running covers any problems that may crop up, calorie-wise?

A. I am more concerned about other health effects of what I eat as opposed to the calories.  For example, I try to eat a low-sodium diet as much as is possible.  I don’t use salt in cooking; I don’t use the salt shaker; and I try to buy low-sodium products in the supermarket.  The latter is more problematic given that one of the major stores used to carry a wide variety of low-sodium products (such as tomato sauce) but has seemed to abandon the effort.  I visit the Food Coop and the Health Food Shoppe for low-sodium items such as spaghetti sauces and white, black, pinto and garbanzo beans.

Although I am not conscious of calories, I rarely drink soda pop. The other day, I drank a cola.  Dawn (my wife) said, “That is really unusual.” When it comes to soft drinks, ‘diet soda’ is even worse than sugared cola. I’m a big fan of water and I drink copious amounts of iced tea. And that would be unsweetened iced tea.  Iced tea laced with sugar is distasteful to me.

Sodium is just one part of the blood pressure equation and, certainly, some sodium is necessary during running to keep a proper electrolyte balance in the bloodstream.  Otherwise, during a hot road run or a trail ultra, you can take in plenty of water, but you can end up having it ‘slosh around’ in your stomach because the body is trying to keep the water from further diluting a low blood sodium level. Potassium and magnesium are key as well and I will take supplements of those two minerals.

I also avoid foods made with vegetable gums.  These are the binders that are so ubiquitous in prepared foods such a guar gum, carob bean gum and others. I’m allergic so I steer clear of most prepared salad dressings, many sauces, and prepared desserts.

Q. Do you eat differently when you’re running or training, versus when you’re not running (like if you’re injured or something?)

A. Running has been a key part of weight control for me.  It just seems that when I am really back in the routine of running, the act of running just naturally seems to help sort out food choices.

Q. Do you eat breakfast? If so, what?

A. There are always boxes of two types of cereal at our house – Shredded Wheat ‘n Bran and Grape Nuts.  Most often, my breakfast consists of a bit of either of those, skim milk and often banana slices or some other fruit on top.    I am so used to skim milk I just don’t like the greasy mouth feel that remains after drinking even 1% milk.  I even have a cat who agrees. Dawn bought some 1% milk because the store was out of skim; Ted cat wouldn’t drink it.

Toast is generally whole wheat, dry.  I will often have an egg over easy when eating breakfast out because I don’t eat that many eggs for breakfast at home.

Q. What is your biggest weakness, food wise? How do you deal with it?

A. Tortilla chips. Absolutely.  I am afraid I don’t deal with those very well and it is where I can fall down on a low-sodium diet and on total calories.  We try not to have potato chip or tortilla chips in the house.  And, I have a great weakness for breads.

I am not a fan of sweets, cookies, chocolate or ice cream as a general rule. I am not a big fan of desserts.

However, Lisa Horning makes the most outstanding chocolate turtles that we give runners at The HUFF 50K.  She is a fantastic chocolatier.  And the Big Brick House Bakery of Wabash makes incredible cheesecakes that we have made available at the Galloping Gobbler.  The cheesecake is very fresh and there is a tremendous sugar-free choice.

While we are on dessert I will say that I enjoy making rhubarb and gooseberry pies.  My grandmother Harper taught me how to garden when I was a kid; I like growing my own fruit and vegetables.

Q. How do you deal with all the community dinners and eating-based events that community leaders are subjected to? Do you typically eat what you’re offered to avoid hurting people’s feelings, or how do you handle that?

A. Well, many of the dinners are catered and those often feature foods that have to be prepared en masse and served within a given period of time.  Those often contain highly salted entrees, highly salted side dishes, and prepared desserts.  I try to eat the protein, eat the steamed vegetables, give away the dessert and minimize what I know to be salty.

That being said, however, we have a lot of talented caterers in this community and some very well-trained culinary talents who make me wonder how they can serve so many people at such a high quality level at one time.

Church suppers are another matter.  I could write a food column on who has a great fish dinner, a great chicken dinner or a great Salisbury steak dinner.  I can debate the relative merits of whether a vinegar based or creamy homemade cole slaw is better.  While many churches seem to be serving prepared, commercial cole slaw today the variety that are a hallmark of church suppers can still be seen in the fruit pie slices available at the back table.

I’m a fan of food and the people who bring their own touch to cooking.

Q. Do you ever “pig out?” If so, do you worry about it or take any particular steps to atone for it, or just move on?

A. More like cravings. About three times a year, I have a craving for bacon-fried eggs.  Although I don’t like liver, I do like a braunschweiger sandwich about three times a year.

I don’t feel guilty about eating too much at a holiday party, for example.  But both of us are quite used to following up for a few days with salads and other light meals.

Q. Do you have any “rules” about what you allow yourself to eat for certain meals or at certain times during the day?

A. No. I’ve never really understood folks who do.

Q. Are you a fan of chocolate milk after running, or is that just more of a race tradition?

A. There is actually some good published research on milk as a recovery drink.  We appreciated Prairie Farms stepping up to provide chocolate milk to the runners at the Galloping Gobbler.

Personally, I don’t necessarily want a milk right at the finish line.  However, I will pour a large glass of milk for myself at home the afternoon after a run.

Q. The bags you handed out at the Galloping Gobbler bore this quote: “A healthy community endures for the long run.” Obviously that race is a means of encouraging better community health. As a city councilman, what role, if any, do you think local governments should play in how people eat within a community?

A. If you mean the do-nots and the shall-nots that some city leaders like Mayor Bloomberg have proposed, I don’t think that is a proper role.

Obviously, government has a role in food and food preparation safety, but food choices are just that – a choice of the consumer.

We should encourage those activities which provide food to those in need. And we can model and encourage good nutrition but those are matters for the bully pulpit, not in being a bully.

Q. Any changes planned for this year’s Galloping Gobbler?

A. Well, we have tried to be innovative in terms of being the first to offer the bib number chip.  And we certainly have had fun with the live turkey.  My Lost Tribe was great in providing live music last year. Matt Miller with Miller’s Mobile Music really aided our ability to make sure all runners could hear the start line instruction and enjoy music at the start and in the finish area.

People can now go to http://VeepRaces.com and see all of our race opportunities in one place.  It used to be that those who ran the Galloping Gobbler didn’t know we were also offering The HUFF 50K Trail Run and Relay, for example.  This is much more convenient for participants and much less confusing for us in directing the race.  There will be more features added to the website in future months.

Two things we saw needed last year were: 1)  signs indicating pace times so people could seed themselves properly at the start crowd; and, 2) tents at the finish line where people could get rehydrated fully without having to go back to the Hutzell Center.

We also expect to have a fairly major addition to this year’s race activities. That announcement will be made prior to late September’s Fort 4 Fitness.

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