The A To Z of Food Activism
James Beard's Sustainability Conference's Big Ideas
A few dozen people, including some of the top names in food politics, gathered atop a Manhattan skyscraper for the past two days to discuss just about every food issue you could imagine at a James Beard Foundation conference. It was titled Sustainability on the Table: How Money & Media Influence the Way America Eats, but the tagline merely served as a guidepost for an ambitious group of thinkers. Sustainability, hunger, farming, policy, obesity, education — everything was on the table, and the assembled activists, thinkers, corporate representatives, chefs and authors looked at the issues from every conceivable angle.
Marion Nestle (Ms. Food Politics herself) led a panel. Barry Estabrook talked tomatoes. Rick Bayless presented leadership awards. Dan Barber called for a return to flavor. Michel Nischan gave an optimistic read on improved eating habits amongst the poor in the United States. White House chef and policy maker Sam Kass, speaking of more focused policy-making and popular momentum for better food, proclaimed, “This is the moment.”
It was a lot to take in, and in an effort to distill it as much as possible, I’ve assembled a hopefully easy-to-digest guide to the ideas, challenges and proposed solutions addressed at the conference, the A to Z of Food Activism.
Access was a big word, as in, if more people had better access to good food, we’d have a lot less problems. Eliminating food deserts, encouraging the rise in farmers markets (up 18 percent nationwide since 1994, according to Nestle) and getting healthier ingredients in schools were all cited as key factors in improving access. This was hardly a feel-good 48 hours; menacing statistics about hunger, obesity and decreasing food quality abounded, but access won out as a discussion topic over the wonkier agribusiness, for instance.
It’s clear that one way to get people to eat better (or worse) is Branding. James Beard Foundation Vice President Mitchell Davis included short films and ads throughout the programming that showcased how companies and organizations use media to spread their messages.
I’d have to rule this a three-way tie between Chefs, CSAs and Communities. This being the Beard Foundation’s gig, chefs were front and center, and while it’s clear that they play a major role in educating people about how to eat better, they’re usually motivated by profit, which limits how much they can actually do as activists. One speaker noted that there are now 12,000 CSAs (community supported agriculture) in the U.S., which is encouraging. Communities play a dramatic part, affecting everything from education to distribution to the next and possibly most important letter…
Demand came up again and again throughout the conference. Increase demand for better food, the thinking goes, and everyone from farmers to large corporations will comply with the demand for it. Diversity was also a buzzword, with a Food Network exec noting how the, um, demand for more diverse shows has made new offshoot The Cooking Channel an instant success.
Education was an obvious hot topic, especially with reps from organizations like FoodCorps, School Food Focus, Share Our Strength, Healthy Schools Campaign and the Culinary Institute of America in the building. Given the conference's title, economics played a part too, with a panel, “How Money, Incentives, and Industry Concentration Influence Our Food System,” digging deep into the economics of improving food quality and availability, and discussing the crucial issue of how to sway mega-corporations in the industry to put as much stock in these ideas as they do in profits.
The Farm Bill came up, with Nestle admonishing, “You ought to be writing about it.” Sadly, few reporters were in attendance, and few attendees or further speakers seemed to want to discuss the Byzantine bureaucracy that will go into next year’s legislation (though we recommend watching Friend of Food Republic Dylan Ratigan’s show if you want to follow this important topic). Here, Flavor was the buzzword, with Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ Dan Barber noting in a lengthy metaphor that if you get a carrot that tastes good, you’ve probably got a local carrot that’s packed with nutrients, hence why it has such great flavor. “By definition,” he said, and I’m editing a bit here since Chef Barber was prone to asides, “when we search for great flavor, we are environmentalists, we are nutritionists, we are community activists, we are taking care of a whole host of issues.”
Shout out to Good Housekeeping, which co-hosted the shindig and secured the swanky digs atop Hearst Tower.
Healthy eating was a hot topic, predictably, with admonishments to eat more vegetables and less meat, to exercise more (first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative got a lot of play). And Hunger also got a lot of play. A recurring theme was that the world faces a population of 9 billion people by 2050, so to combat hunger, we have to act now.
The government, corporations, communities, organizations and even individuals need to Invest if the food situation is going to improve.
Not that it came up too much, but I walked away with a good solution for creating more Jobs. It’d take federal and local governments, big corporations, small communities and a monumental effort, but the antidote to a lot of these food-related problems and Occupy Wall Street–type protests might be to create initiatives based around getting better food production and distribution going around the country and even around the world (with the U.S. using its exporting muscle). Okay, I am getting too heady here, so onto the next…
One thing is clear: Teach Kids about ingredients and cooking and they get seriously into it, which is one way to make sure the future looks less bleak than the present.
Legislation probably isn’t the best way to get things done, but sometimes it’s the only way. White House chef Sam Kass, Wholesome Wave founder Michel Nischan and Senator Kirsten E. Gillebrand’s senior policy advisor Wendy R. Gellman cited a laundry list of food-related legislation that will hopefully help — if the government can ever agree on anything.
Lots of options here, but we’re backing Meatless Monday, which came up a few times during the conference. Why? Decreasing meat consumption is good for health and the environment.
Nutrition, plain and simple. Weird fact from the conference: Doctors in some cases can now prescribe fruits, vegetables and activity in an effort to help Americans who apparently can’t help themselves.
Obesity and overeating are tremendous problems in this country. Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates have tripled, with nearly a third of children in the U.S. being overweight or obese. According to Sam Kass, at least 2/3 of the overall U.S. population is overweight or obese.
The usually fiery chef José Andrés led a call for Pragmatism during one panel, noting that issues aren’t always black and white. By way of example, he noted that one of his restaurants may get up to 12 deliveries in a day to keep the fresh, good ingredients coming, while a nearby McDonald’s might only require one delivery over a few days, making the typically vilified McDonald’s technically greener in this sense than his own restaurants. Runners up here: Policy, Politics, Pesticides, Profit.
Quality is at the heart of a lot of the food issues. Without quality, many people in the food world would lose interest quickly.
The best term I heard over the two days was Re-regionalization, in other words encouraging changes to the food system that would have ingredients traveling shorter distances as regions showcase their own products.
Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland, recalled James Beard (the food writer and activist who gave the foundation its name) looking at Tomatoes in a supermarket and calling it “a total gastronomic loss.” The commercialization of the tomato over the past few decades is a symptom of how the food system has rewarded quantity over quality, leading to many of the problems we face today.
The USDA is looked to for a lot of answers and guidance, but the hope for a better future may rest in the efforts and involvement of multinational corporations like Unilever, which thankfully had a representative on hand to speak on a panel (though the conference as a whole could have benefited from more corporate reps taking part in these discussions; the ones who showed seemed outnumbered and cagey).
It’s been awhile since I heard the term “Volume Food Service,” and when I did at the conference, it conjured painful visions of my university dining hall, serviced by what we had nicknamed “Marri-rot.” It’s clear that attitudes like mine will have to be adjusted if we’re to get volume food service companies on board with proposed changes to the food system, since they feed so many students, workers, soldiers and travelers around the world.
The White House is a hotbed of activity under the Obama administration, with Kass, Michelle Obama and the President himself keeping a lot of these issues in the spotlight and fighting to improve the nation’s health. I don’t care what party you vote for, that deserves a round of applause.
I can’t think of anything from the conference that started with X, so I’m using this space to link to Food System Network NYC’s Hurricane Irene Farm Relief Action page. Famers in upstate New York, Vermont and elsewhere are still reeling from last month’s hurricane, and natural disasters can undo a lot of the good that people are doing in the food world right now. While I'm digressing, check out Philadelphia's Common Market, which presented at the conference and is an inspiring model of improving a community through grassroots action.
I was in a working group with a sustainable oysterman from Washington who pointed out that instead of responding to statements with “No, but,” it’s better to spur optimism through the phrase “Yes, and.” Kinda cheesy, but I like it.
When it comes down to improving the state of food, it might help to look at Zones. This plays into the re-regionalization idea, but if you think about how everything from using locally grown produce and meat to trying to eradicate food deserts is part of the process of improving how we eat, zones can be key. Work in your zone, and help improve the state of food, health, eating and the environment. That’s what I’m taking away from this conference.