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Food System Change in a Political World: Food Tank 2017 D.C. Summit Highlights

By Michelle Winglee

A packed George Washington University auditorium that included farmers, policymakers, businesses, media, and academics convened last Thursday at Food Tank’s D.C. Summit to spur action on changing the food system. Over 40,000 people from 150 countries also tuned in to view the live broadcast of the day-long panel discussions, which highlighted issues in immigration, national security, and food policy.

Organized by Food Tank, an online platform that supports sustainable food communities around the world, the D.C. food summit comes at a time when President Trump nominees threaten to roll back Obama-era policies supporting greater nutrition.

However, Food Tank founder Danielle Nierenberg remains optimistic about the polarized D.C. climate. “I remain hopeful that food is the thing that unites us all.” Danielle encouraged pursuit of “unusual collaborations” across fields that could help put the culture back in agriculture.

The thirty-six summit speakers featured Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D), Fran Dresner from the hit series “The Nanny,” and NPR food correspondent Allison Aubrey, in addition to agricultural experts from research think tanks and farm associations. Panelist speakers cut across political and industry divides, from multinational food corporations to family farm chicken operations in Shenandoah, Virginia.

John Glover of USAID shows audience members what a resilient root system can look like next to Ann O’Connor of Organic Valley and Ted Monk from Sodexo.

The following are highlights from the panelist discussions. Videos from the summit are available online here.

  1. Immigration and a shrinking farm labor supply: “Ninety-six percent of our employees come from outside of the U.S.” said Kip Tom, former CEO of Tom Farms and member of President Trump’s agricultural advisory committee. Tom Farms, which specializes in corn and soy production while being the largest agri-business farm operator in Indiana, struggles with the tightening supply of farm labor — a wide-ranging challenge among farmers in the United States. Even with tech solutions to provide more with less, panelist speaker Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, who leads the George Washington University Sustainability Collaborative, noted, “without immigration reform we can’t sustain a legal workforce.”

  2. The fight for Farm Bill funding: Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), a member of the House subcommittee that oversees Farm Bill appropriations and proud owner of an organic farm in Maine, advocates to move Farm Bill money from commodity crops to the less than 1% that supports organic farming. The Congresswoman urged participants to stay informed and hold policy makers accountable for food legislation through Food Policy Action.

  3. Too fat to fight: During the food security panel, a discussion normally centered around domestic supply and the controversies of food aid, an audience member raised a 2012 Mission Readiness report finding that a quarter of young Americas are too fat to serve in the military. The project called on Congress to remove junk food and high-sugar beverages from schools that contribute to childhood obesity and diabetes.

  4. Hidden hunger: The deprivation of important micronutrients even with a full belly, “hidden hunger” affects two billion or one in three people according to a 2014 International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report. Though concentrated in developing nations, Director General of IFPRI Shengen Fan, noted that hidden hunger also coincides with obesity in high-income urban areas too. Iodine and iron deficiency are wide-spread in the developed world according to the IFPRI report.

  5. “They want what we have”: Erica Hellen, who raises and processes their farm’s own pasture-raised chicken, pigs, and cattle with her partner on their 13-acre Free Union Grass Farm in Charlottesville, Virginia, sees a problem with false advertising and consumer education. “They want what we have,” said Erica about food conglomerates that advertise happy hens roaming around on grass despite realities of crowded cages and low, if any, access to sunlight. However, consumers still don’t get why higher prices for food are worth it. “We gladly spend an extra dollar for a latte, but we can’t pay $5 for eggs?” she asked incredulously. On average, the U.S. spends less on food than anywhere else in the world.

  6. “Stop! Stop! Stop!”: Cried Fran Dresner in her unique nasal twang that charmed “The Nanny” TV-watchers around the country. Fran, a cancer survivor and founder of the nonprofit Cancer Schmancer, called on audience members to pause before they bought into societal norms that promote pills, waste, and pollution. Fran pointed out how current culture in the U.S. is far removed from indigenous lifestyles that lived in harmony with nature. “We don’t know that food is medicine.”

While telling the audience to skip the drug store and focus on swapping out food choices, Fran noted how consumer decisions like buying single-use plastic utensils contribute to the petroleum industry and pollutants released into the environment. “Did you know that 90% of cancer is related to the environment?” Fran asked. Cancer Schmancer looks to help consumers identify and eliminate toxins in food, cosmetics, and around the home.

Though the conference highlighted challenges of the food system, attendees also saw rays of hope in the trend towards more sustainable food. For the past four years, the organic industry has seen double digit growth while 2016 marked a record high of 10.8% growth at $43.3 billion in organic sales according to an Organic Trade Association industry survey. Comparatively, the overall food market grew at 3.3%. The USDA reports a surge in farmers’ markets in the United States, growing from 1,755 markets in 1994 to over 8,144 in 2013. Meanwhile, Food Tank DC Summit sponsors like Organic Valley, a billion dollar enterprise that incorporates small dairy farmers into its business model, restaurants like Elevation Burger, committed to supplying grass-fed organic beef, or Shouk, which serves middle eastern-inspired vegan sandwiches, were also a testament to the opportunities for profitability and sustainability.

“’Organic’ is the new ‘plastics,’” said Dan Glickman of the Aspen Institute, referencing the 60’s movie The Graduate allusion to the next big industry.

On a more somber note, remarks by Ken Cook, President of the Environmental Working Group, warned attendees of the battle that lay ahead. Trump cabinet picks include Representative Tom Price (R-GA), slated for Secretary of Health, who has a history for voting against healthier school meals and increased food-safety inspections. Scott Pruitt, selected to run the EPA, received more than $40,000 in campaign donations from poultry companies accused of poultry runoff in the Illinois River Basin in addition to filing lawsuits against the EPA as Oklahoma’s Attorney General. Trump USDA pick, former Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue has called climate change “a running joke among the public.” Food Summit speaker Roger Johnson from the National Farmers Union, representing conventional and organic farms across the United States, commented on undeniable seasonal changes that have affected planting seasons around the country.

Despite the grim political outlook, Ken called on attendees to be “happy warriors.” He urged sustainable food advocates to vote with their dollar and join forces with other movements. “Advocacy is a team sport,” said Ken, “if you’re resisting on your own you may just be moping.”

Michelle Winglee is a freelance writer who covers topics on the environment, agriculture, and energy. She previously worked as a Research Assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Fellow at Food Day before embarking on a year-long Mandarin fellowship in Taipei and Beijing. Her publications have appeared in outlets such as Foreign Policy, SupChina, The Diplomat Magazine, and ChinaDialogue. She is interested in the nexus between economic and environmentally sustainable development. You can follow her @MichelleWinglee.


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