Last month, the Friedman School hosted the 11th annual Future of Food and Nutrition Conference. Graduate students from across the country and around the world gathered to discuss their innovative research related to food and nutrition. Nako Kobayashi summarizes and offers some of her thoughts on the topics covered during the conference.
“The future of food and nutrition is now, and you are the future of food and nutrition,” said Dr. Ed Saltzman, the academic dean of the Friedman School, as he kicked off the 11th Annual Future of Food and Nutrition Conference on April 7th. Attendees from Friedman and beyond, including prospective Friedman students, gathered to learn about the innovative graduate student research from around the country and abroad. The future, Dr. Saltzman noted, is “not just based on disciplinary excellence, but [excellence] across disciplines and in teams of disciplines” that work toward “creating new paradigms.”
True to Dr. Saltzman’s insights, the conference was a great representation of the increasingly interdisciplinary and systemic nature of food and nutrition research and innovations. Seventeen student presentations were divided into six sessions: food insecurity, child health and nutrition outcomes, sustainable agriculture and dietary patterns, nutrition and health, agricultural productivity, and consumer food access and choice.
Britt Lundgren, the Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture at Stonyfield Farm and Friedman alum, kicked off the conference with her keynote address that emphasized the importance of food and nutrition research. “I think this represents one of the toughest sustainably issues we face,” she explained when talking about the environmental impact of food production, “because the stakes are so high. We’re talking about how we feed ourselves sustainably, how we feed future generations sustainably … which ultimately impacts quality of life.”
Climate change is not only an environmental problem, Lundgren explained, but “a public health problem first and foremost.” Changes in temperature are limiting our ability to produce crops in certain locations, and these limitations will only increase if we do not act quickly to slow the change. In addition, extreme weather events that result from the changing climate further threaten our ability to produce food. Instead of viewing agriculture as a contributor to climate change and other environmental problems, “Not only can agriculture be a part of the solution to climate change,” Lundgren explained, “but agriculture must be a part of the solution to climate change … it is possible to turn agriculture into a net sink of carbon instead of a net source.”
A Q&A session with Doug Rauch, the Founder and President of Daily Table and former president of Trader’s Joes, continued the narrative of finding solutions in unlikely places. Rauch explained how Daily Table makes food shopping an empowering instead of demeaning experience. Daily Table is a non-profit community grocery store with two locations in Massachusetts: one in Dorchester and another in Roxbury. Wanting to help reduce the astonishing amount of food waste in our supply chains, Rauch initially sought to establish a food bank. However, he realized that a large portion of the people who could benefit from such a service may not utilize it because the food bank environment is one that perpetuates a sense of shame instead of agency and pride. “We all should feel entitled to lead healthy, happy lives,” Rauch commented.
Rauch found a solution in the retail space. Instead of handing out free food, he decided to offer food at reduced prices, so people would feel like they are getting a bargain instead of qualifying for a free handout. By avoiding the so-called “philanthropic black hole,” where people must continuously rely on outside help without being empowered to utilize their own agency, Rauch explains that Daily Table offers a “dignified shopping experience to a community that is nutritionally suffering.” In addition, Daily Table also helps support the local economy. As opposed to a farmer’s market, where a farmer comes from outside of the community, Daily Table creates jobs for local residents by hiring from within the community.
The research presented by graduate students spanned a wide range of disciplines and topics, from the relationship of mitochondrial function and intestinal barrier integrity to women’s role in the cacao value chain in Indonesia. The conference reinforced the pragmatic and innovative aims that often characterize food and nutrition research.
The presentations related research to real-world problems and solutions. Instead of investigating theories within an academic vacuum, the graduate student researchers took a wide and interdisciplinary stance. For example, one student investigated the relationship between campus food pantry use, GPA, and diet quality of University of Florida students to inform campus food policy (Jamie Paola, University of Florida), while another created a travel cost model to understand the factors that influence food pantry use (Anne Byrne, Cornell University). Theresa Lieb from the University of Oxford stepped back to look at food systems as a whole, and identified possible policy routes moving forward while arguing for a more sustainable global diet that moves away from meat and dairy consumption.
While there are certainly many problems that need addressing within our food system, the Future of Food Nutrition Conference showed that hope remains for a more sustainable and just food future. As Dr. Saltzman noted in his opening remarks, “I think that as we move forward, the future is indeed in good hands.” I am hopeful, after attending the conference, that Dr. Saltzman is right.
Nako Kobayashi is a first-year AFE student interested in food and agriculture issues. The Friedman School appealed to her as an option for pursuing graduate studies because of the programs’ emphasis on holistic, pragmatic, and viable solutions to food and nutrition issues.