At last week’s Food Conference in New York City, hosted by the James Beard Foundation,* top chefs, food industry leaders, food movement advocates, and philanthropists explored the issue of trust in our food. Calls for more transparency and better science on everything from genetically-modified foods to the effect of factory-farmed dairy cattle on milk offered a dizzying array of opportunities for funders who are interested in health, nutrition, and sustainability. However, it became increasingly clear that supporting these issues means improving not just how our food is produced but also how we set our tables.
Providing Americans with truly healthy meals will require us to re-create a culinary culture in America. We must nurture who grows our food, develop better access to nutritious foods, celebrate our food as we gather around our tables, and be more diligent about leading healthy lifestyles.
For example, if factory farms are partially to blame for highly-processed foods, we need to spur natural, smaller-scale farming by making it a viable career again. USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan reports that for every farmer under the age of 25 there are five who are 75 or older. The USDA encourages us to know our food and know our farmer. That’s the starting point for healthy meals.
Malik Yakini’s Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, whose urban gardens aspire to make up for the disappearance of national grocery chains in its city, knows that you can’t have food justice without social justice. Our nation’s poor—many of whose families were part of the foundation of American agriculture—have been so far removed from our food systems that, for some, vegetables that don’t come out of a can are completely foreign. Food policies and affordable grocers have left many communities behind, keeping nutritious foods out of the reach of many.
Chef Rick Bayless of Tortas Frontera at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport knows that serving natural foods to travelers requires working the airport authority’s regulations as much as working the fields. The hurdles of getting healthy choices into airports mirror the problems facing regional food systems across the country. For some, it’s easier to get tomatoes from a pesticide-laden field in South America than it is from an organic farm across town.
And White House Chef Sam Kass, along with his boss Michelle Obama, will tell you that nutrition involves not just what we eat but how we burn the calories we consume.
At the Food Conference, I was most struck by Eric Goldstein, who was responsible for meals for all of New York City’s public schools. He presented a stark portrait of our culinary culture by comparing how kids eat in America (remember your loud, smelly, cafeteria that was patrolled by a teacher or school security guard?) with those in Europe (kids and teachers sit calmly in a clean, modern facility, eating good food, talking nicely, and then going out to play). At home, American meals are more often ordered by phone and consumed in front of the television than prepared together and enjoyed over conversation.
The gastropreneurs I heard speak at the conference show us that funders who are interested in healthy meals should support a broad approach to the many challenges facing what we put on our tables. By exploring our national culinary culture, federal food policies, regional agriculture systems, and local consumer communities, philanthropists can find opportunities where their dollars can have the greatest—and lasting—impact.
*Disclosure: I am on the James Beard Foundation board and I contributed to the conference.
As founder and a managing director of Arabella Advisors, Eric Kessler has built a social venture firm dedicated to helping philanthropist have more impact. His client work at Arabella includes building philanthropy strategies, evaluating grantees and grant portfolios and managing foundation operations. He is also a co-owner of two restaurants and created the Chef Policy Boot Camp.