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Is the food movement winning? Recap of the NYC Food Tank Summit

Co-Editor Nako Kobayashi won tickets to attend the New York City Food Tank Summit last month. Here’s her recap of the 2-day summit that addressed progress and challenges regarding the so-called “Food Movement”.

A dizzying, info-packed two-day event

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend Food Tank’s NYC Summit at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Food Tank, a think tank for all things food, was co-founded by Danielle Nierenberg, a Friedman alum. Food Tank summits bring together a wide variety of actors to engage in discussions about our food system. The NYC summit’s theme was “The Food Movement is Growing (and Winning),” and it brought in over 60 food industry representatives, activists, politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs, chefs, and farmers. Across two days, they discussed what we’re doing right, what we’re still doing wrong, and what needs to happen moving forward regarding our food system.

It was a jam-packed two days. It would be impossible to summarize the entire summit in an article short enough to keep your attention. So I’ll touch on some of my own personal favorite moments, areas I think the summits could improve on in the future, and my general takeaways from the conference.

We have work to do

“We’re not here to pat the food movement on the back,” Nierenberg said in her opening speech. Instead, she hoped the summit will help us consider how to move things forward. This is especially important, she said, because one of the panelists, Sam Kass, President Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Nutrition Policy, believes that, as Nierenberg interpreted, “the food movement is bull****.”

Left to right: Sam Kass, Haile Thomas, and Roberto Ferdman

“I really don’t think we have a food movement,” explained Kass as he sat down for his panel discussion with Haile Thomas, President of The HAPPY Org, and moderator Roberto Ferdman of Vice. The environmental movement, he explained, has lawyers, lobbyists, activists and politicians all mobilizing towards a common goal from both a grassroots and political standpoint. The cultural transformation that is starting to form around food is not backed by a strategic, political movement. “We shouldn’t imagine it’s happening when it’s not,” he said.

Kass’s opening thoughts foreshadowed the tension that became apparent across the next two days. Industry representatives, politicians, and entrepreneurs highlighted their successes and hopefulness for the future, while some journalists and activists were much more skeptical.

On Climate and Sustainability

The big buzzword of the day was regenerative agriculture, especially among panelists from the food industry. Brit Lundgreen from Stonyfield, Jean de Barrau from Danone, and Chris Daugherty from PepsiCo all pointed to regenerative agriculture as a way food companies can address climate-related externalities associated with food production. But did anyone define exactly what regenerative agriculture is? No, not really.

Left to Right: Moderator Tim Carman, Michiel Bakker (Google), Amy Keister (Compass Group), Mary Jane Melendez (General Mills), and Jean De Barrau (Danone)

When asked why we should believe companies when they talk about prioritizing sustainability, Amy Keister, Senior Vice President at Compass group, insisted that many of their corporate investors are asking for it. “What is good for planet is good for profit,” she explained. Jyoti Stephens, the Vice President of Mission and Strategy at Nature’s Path, insisted that the U.S. needs to rethink the relationship between sustainability and economic growth. Vancouver British Columbia, where she is from, has a carbon tax. But Vancouver also has “one of the fastest growing economies in Canada,” she said.

On Nutrition

Mark Bittman, food journalist and author, echoed what Kass said in the first panel. “Eating is a political act … if we want to eat well, we need policies that support it.” To get our food systems to provide better nutrition, he suggested stopping the ethanol mandate, raising the minimum wage, and providing equitable land access to all farmers. Such policies would incentivize production of better-for-you crops, rather than crops that simply generate the most money. For chef Tom Colicchio, the answer lies in funding “universal free lunch for every student in this country,” and providing farm-to-cafeteria programs that would benefit both farmers and students.

Left to right: Chef Tom Colicchio, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, author Marion Nestle, and moderator Florence Fabricant

Others noted the need to link healthcare to food. “How can my borough be the hungriest and also have an obesity epidemic?” asked Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. Bronx has one of the largest concentrations of health care facilities in New York, but he wonders, “are they there to prevent disease, or are they they’re because they know we’re sick?” Dr. Mark Hyman, physician and best-selling author, stressed the importance of incorporating nutrition education in medical schools. If the licensing exams for doctors incorporated nutrition, this would drive medical school curriculum changes, he explained.

On racial equality in the food system

“We have 20 minutes to address centuries of injustice,” said Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post, as she and Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm set off on an engaging discussion on land ownership, land theft, labor, food distribution, and the need for oppressed people to reclaim the narrative. Although black and brown people are often left out of the conversation, these communities hold an immense amount of knowledge. Penniman noted how the idea of regenerative agriculture, now the talk of the day, was founded by George Washington Carver, a black agricultural scientist in the early 1900s, but no one acknowledges this. Penniman herself is usually only given a platform to discuss racial equality. “Rarely if ever have I ever been asked to talk about soil science,” she said.

Leah Penniman (left) and Tamar Haspel (right)

Surprise guest Denisa Livingston closed the summit with a discussion on food sovereignty. Livingston, a Diné (Navajo) woman, is a food justice advocate who was a driving force in implementing the Navajo nation’s tax on unhealthy foods. Food deserts are a misnomer, she said, “because a desert is an ecosystem with life.” Instead, she described the reality as a food apartheid, where certain communities are deliberately kept from having access to fresh, nutritious food. But both Livingston and Penniman were clear on one thing: the people they speak of don’t need “saving.” They need to be empowered to reclaim the narrative and remember that they know best when it comes to bettering their circumstances.

My takeaways

It was exciting to be in a place where everyone was talking about our food system and presenting ideas on how we can fix the problems. But by the end of day 2, I found myself thinking about Sam Kass’s skepticism towards the so-called “food movement.” To me, many of the panelists sounded like this: Here’s this huge societal problem that exists regarding food, but look, here’s how we’re addressing it. But do we really have all the answers? Or are we all just complicit in corporate greenwashing and political tactics? Most of the panels lacked a sufficient Q&A section, and many of the moderators did not ask questions that were challenging enough to really dive into these questions.

While it’s promising that we are acknowledging and beginning to address issues with our food system, I’ll still be skeptical of any big claims from politicians or the food industry until I see real progress. Until the incidences of food-related diseases goes down, and until we have a food system that better mitigates climate change, I think we need to continuously demand more action. I hope that future Food Tank summits the audience will have more opportunities to challenge and question the panelists, rather than having to simply sit and believe that the food movement is, indeed, succeeding.

Nako Kobayashi is an AFE student interested in sustainable and diversified food systems. She spent the summer working for Assawaga Farm at the Union Square Farmers Market every Saturday, as well as interning for Tufts Office of Sustainability on the Medford/Somerville campus. She loves devouring both food and stories about food.

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