Changing the Way We Eat: Live from TEDxManhattan

Posted: February 16th, 2011 | Author:

Diane Hatz, Director of The Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming, asked me to blog live from the inaugural TEDxManhattan event “Changing the Way We Eat”, February 12, 2011.  All in all, I produced a whopping 125 tweets, 11 Facebook Updates and one blog. These formats tell the story in reverse chronology that I have re-ordered for your reading pleasure.

Session 1 – What happened?

Here is the live stream for Session 1 http://www.tedxmanhattan.org/webcast-session-1.

Live blogging: I feel like Lester Bangs, the [famous] music critic, taking the stage to tap on his typewriter.  Now, laptop.  Shout out to TEDxMan Viewing Parties, especially friends in Hudson Valley, Gianni Ortiz, and Ithaca, Krys Cail, and Erin Fairbanks at NYU and the rest of you 40 some odd other sites!

Laurie David – Environmental activist and author Laurie David kicked off the day with the ode to family meals as the glue of social interactions and good eating habits. She calls for parents to “ring the dinner bell” for the health and success of their kids. Rituals around sharing food are cornerstone of social behavior and society itself! What’s the one factor shared by all National Merit Scholars: They all ate dinner regularly with their families. I guess that’s why being called “Late to Dinner” has such negative consequences to be avoided at all costs. David’s talk tracked themes laid out in her new book “The Family Dinner:  Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time,” a guide to unplugging and connecting with your family over healthy, fresh food. She claims the power of Family Dinner is so strong that she succeeded in drawing her famously cynical ex-husband, Larry, back home for dinner together with their daughters.

Carolyn Steel, who is author the book Hungry City, came to TEDxMan via video of her previous TED talk.  Steel uses food as a means to “read” cities and explain their function.  Steel described the history of how cities fed themselves for 1000 years focusing on eating domestic animals and the consequences of the increasing scale of this practice correlated to the ever-enlarging metropolises. Such metropolises will not be able to continue to grow and rely on ever-dwindling rural areas to supply food.

According to Steel: “The first thing we need to do is to stop seeing cities as inert objects and recognize them as organic entities, inextricably bound to the natural ecosystem. The language may be new, but the thinking is not: Philosophers as diverse as Plato, More, and Marx have tried for centuries to resolve the urban paradox by imagining ideal societies. The trouble is, such societies were utopian, so they never came to pass. What we urgently need is an alternative to utopia: a model that aims not at perfection but at something partial and attainable. My proposal is sitopia, from the ancient Greek words sitos (food) and topos (place). Sitopia, in essence, is a way of recognizing the central role that food plays in our lives and of harnessing its potential to shape the world in a better way.”

As a solution to the growth of the Metropolis, Steel’s concept of “Sitopia” frames the challenge of the future being a shift from city as food consumer to city as food producer. She advocates modeling decentralized, scattered site production of food within cities, promoting such changes as cultivating urban farms.

Cheryl Rogowski is a second-generation family farmer from the black dirt region of Pine Island in Warwick, Orange County, New York.  She reveals that she was Onion Princess in 1983, daughter of an onion farmer in biggest onion-growing region in the US.  Rogowski tells of damaged soil from onion mono-crop planting & how she “dug in” & began changing to organic practices and started thinking of “dirt as soil.”

The Rogowski Farm has been a pioneer in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement that allows consumers to buy a portion of the farmer’s harvest in advance of the harvest.  She is also credited with starting the first low income CSA in NY state.  Rogowski talks of burden and benefit of CSA, taking on responsibility of feeding others but knowing that her members are eating better and helping her take care of the soil.

Karen Hudson lives on a fifth generation family farm in West Central Illinois. She founded F.A.R.M. (Families Against Rural Messes), a grassroots group in Illinois that opposes CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations) and their impacts. She is co-founder of ICCAW (Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water). Hudson talked about her campaign to change airborne manure disposal practices of factory farms, hitting on a campaign slogan: “Illinois Land of Stinkin’”.

Many of her successful campaigns against CAFOs demonstrated abuses and illegal activities using aerial photographs as evidence.  Large dairy corporations were not so pleased to be held accountable to federal and state environmental laws.  Hudson tells the chilling tale of how Big Dairy responded to her efforts by successfully getting an amendment to a draft of an Anti-Terrorism Bill that would have made it a serious crime to take aerial photos of agricultural animal operations.  She caught wind (so to speak) of this language and help wage a citizen’s campaign to remove it. Hudson reminded the audience that changing the way we eat involves taking on entrenched interests that will fight dirty and hard to continue profiting from creating pollution and poisoning their neighbors.

She said her kids were confused by her activism.  However, over time, she was pleased that her children shifted from embarassed to proud.  Recently, she got a megaphone from her kids for her birthday.

Ken Cook, president and co-founder of Environmental Working Group (EWG) discussesd how government money is spent on US food system thru Farm Bill.  Cook showed a map of Manhattan with hundreds of densely-packed dots representing recipients of federal farm subsidies. He said many of these dots represented payments made to absentee owners of farmland. He showed this slide to demonstrate that Farm Bill effects even urban places like Manhattan.

Cook wants to convince all eaters in the US to make reform of Farm Bill part of their healthy diet. He showed how most Farm Bill is $314 billion for Food Stamp Program with 43 million people enrolled, half of whom are kids, getting $4.50/day and $1.50/meal. The next largest portion of funding in the Farm Bill is Farm Subsidy. Largest 10% of all farms get 70%+ of all subsidies concentrated in midwest.

These days the Farm Bill pays for the depletion of the soil in one chapter while it pays for conservation in another.  For instance, Farmers are paid to remove plant residue to make fields for ethanol vs. leaving it in fields to replenish soil health & fertility.

What does change in the Farm Bill look like? In US, 814 million acres are used for crops and livestock. By contrast, the $25 billion organic market operates on <1% of that land = 7 mil acres. There is a lot of room for improvement and growth of organic stewardship. To help increase the size and understanding of the organic marketplace, Cook and EWG have produced a wallet card listing the “Dirty Dozen,” foods that receive such dangerous levels of pesticides that they should only be eaten if labeled “organic.”

After Cook spoke, we enjoyed a performance by Dean Osborne playing bluegrass banjo from the highlands of Kentucky, traditional music for 200 years from an agrarian area in the US. Nice cultural reference point to bookmark the importance of feeding the soul as well as the body.

Dr. Scott Kahan, Co-Director of the George Washington University Weight Management Center, spoke about “Why We Eat the Way Eat?” Knowing some stuff is bad for us, why do we continue to eat it? Kahan opined that our environment — social & physical landscape — strongly shapes our decisionmaking process about food & all else.

“Unhealthy food is cheaper than fresh food, so that obviously influences economic decisions.”  Portions of unhealthy foods are larger these days, leading us to eat more and more. The largest Coke available in 1960 was the new 12oz can! Now, the can is the smallest size. Food scientists have learned how to manipulate human response to taste, smell & texture using salt, sugar and fat to seal the deal.

“Unhealthy foods more widely available in more stores than healthy foods.” Hard to get a fresh peach at a gas station. 6000+ ads are directed to kids each year selling unhealthy foods as opposed to only a handful of ads for healthy foods.  ”Messengers sell unhealthy products to kids.” Studies of kids who eat a food with a picture of a character, like Shrek, on the package report that it actually tastes better to them than the same food without the picture of the character on it. Who knew a foul-smelling ogre could be used to sell more unhealthy food?

Kathy Lawrence, founder of NY’s Just Food and Program Director of School Food FOCUS “helping transform school food procurement to provide meals that are more healthful, local and sustainably produced.” Lawrence described how National School Lunch Act was passed with good intentions but school lunch reflects negative changes taking place in the entire US food system. School lunch changed from whole, fresh food to packaged, shelf stable prepared foods. Sound familiar? School food is supposed to make kids happy & healthy, yet it’s backfiring by providing foods that makes kids obese and sick.

As a solution, Lawrence offered a list of “powers” of change: Peers, Partnerships, Fun, Public Policy, Public Plate. And . . .Power of Peaches! Some kids have never seen a fresh peach. “When school food programs introduced peaches at schools, kids loved them.” The Food Revolution could all start with a bite of sweet fresh fruit. Dare we eat a peach? Lawrence ended with the power that links all the others together: The Power of Love. “We have the power and we share the vision to make enlightened institutional purchasing that is at the heart of ending obesity and food-related illnesses.”

The food at lunch was spot-on with the themes of the day provided deliciously by Mary Cleaver of Cleaver Co., sustainable chef in NYC for 25 years. To further “change the way we eat,” Hatz informed us that we would be given a picnic bag with five lunches only after we linked a group of five strangers to eat together. Even though I fulfilled this exercise honestly, meeting some great new people, one of my lunchmates was the son of my neighbor from across the street!

Session 2 – Where are we?

http://www.tedxmanhattan.org/webcast-session-2

Dan Barber, chef for Blue Hill at Stone Barns, joined via video feed talking about problems with commercial fishing and sustainable alternatives. Barber asked his supplier how its fish farm was “sustainable.” First, he was told that the farm was so far out at sea that none of the fish waste could pollute local waters.  Next, he was told that the feed to flesh ratio to grow larger fish, like Salmon, was one of best in the industry 2.5:1 and the feed consisted of  ”sustainable proteins.” When Barber pressed the fish farmer to explain what he meant by “sustainable proteins,” he found out that one of main ingredients in the feed for fish was chicken!  ”After learning that fish were fed chicken, he said “All the fish began to taste like chicken.”

Barber went on to explore the question: What makes a good fish farm? He visited an estuarial marshland recaptured from industrial destruction in Spain that was farmed extensively not intensively.  Barber found out that a good fish farm measures success by the health of visiting predators, such as flamingos, whose pink bellies show their fitness after being permitted to eat 20% of farmed fish. The good fish farm shares its yield with predators because it is part of an ecosystem rather than destroying one.  The fish from the good farm has skin that tastes sweet like the ocean because the water is so clean. Not oily, bitter.

Barber came away with a simple, powerful observation: “The future of food should taste good.” Feeding more people more cheaply has been business plan of American Agriculture for the last 5o years, resulting in resource extraction & depletion. Barber thinks that kind of business plan cannot continue forever.

Diane Hatz introduced TEDx Fellows. Stefani Bardin is an artist exploring impact of processed foods vs. fresh foods on digestive tract using a miniature camera called the M2A naming her project (aptly) “Fantastic Voyage.” Other fellows include: Stacey Murphy, founder of bkfarmyards, a decentralized urban farm network in Brooklyn, NY; Erica Dahwan incubating SupplyChange, a fair trade fruit company; Letitia Johnson, starting a Delta SEEDS to develop capacity among black farmers in Mississippi; and Wayne Labar, Vice President of Exhibitions and Featured Experiences at Liberty Science Center, working on Cooking: the Exhibition.

Brian Halweil, editor of Edible East End, publisher of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan and senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute said he was inspired by naturalist Paul Ehrlich to do explore sustainability.  Ehrlich says that “agriculture is where humans touch the world most intensively” and Halweil began to research negative impacts & promptly got depressed.

To move away from the negative impacts humans make on the environment, Halweil wrote a book entitled Eat Here, looking at local food system as a positive, uplifting alternative that could change the World. Halweil tells stories of food system changes improving the environment in small ways around the World.

Halweil spoke of citizen oyster growers in the East End of Long Island helped by Cornell University to form the largest community aquaculture program in the US.  Halweil draws hope from Kenyan farmers fertilizing soil by planting trees between crop rows, fixing nitrogen & dramatically increasing crop yields. Halweil is encouraged by the increase of individual farming in cities in Africa and the expansion of green carts in NYC moving food to un-served areas. Lastly, Halweil has witnessed many schools all over the south fork of Long Island adding edible schoolyards to their curriculum and physical culture, competing with each other to see who can raise the most food.

“Food can be our greatest ally,” says Halweil. “And, If the environmental movement is dead then I say “Long Live the Food Movement!”

Lucas Knowles, Coordinator of USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, spoke of partnerships that stimulate growth of local/regional food systems which can be transformative.  Knowles mentioned that Farmers Markets have double sales over the last 10 years but still only represent a minute fraction of the overall market — equal to less than 1% of all food sales.  The partnerships cited by Knowles were admirable and interesting.  My eyebrows raised a bit when Knowles gave a shout out to ADM as a partner of a little farmer collective in Washington state.  All in all, Knowles focused on existing USDA programs rather than using his bully pulpit at TEDx to explore how USDA might really change the food system.

Barbara Askins, President and CEO of 125th Street BID, talked about the business of food in Harlem, a place with food deserts where 1 in 6 residents have diabetes. “What’s missing?” she asked “A community accepted vision of how to bring fresh food to Harlem, comprehensive plan” not piecemeal. Askins continued to pose questions: What’s Harlem food like now? Supermarkets far off, fast food everywhere, many people of limited means whose traditional foods are unhealthy, adopted in the past for active people who did physical work all day. What are the solutions? Askins cited some creative artists who used “edutainment” to raise consciousness about healthy eating through hip hop music.  She spoke of NYC’s Green Cart Program as an instance where government was making a difference in bringing fresh food to underserved people via street vendors. In conclusion, she felt that input from the community itself is always necessary to find out how to plan for local change.

Elizabeth Meltz, Director of Food Safety and Sustainable for Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group, spoke about her company leads by example of celebrity chefs who walk the walk and talk the talk. Meltz discussed her experience attempting to green a restaurant business.  She found that greening was a lot more about educating staff rather than simply changing to green stuff. When one restaurant changed to low-phosphate detergents, she found the dishwashers pouring tons of the soap into the machines. When she asked why, the dishwashers told her that the new soap made no suds. After she explained that this was normal, the dishwashers stopped using excessive amounts of soap.  Meltz sees her job as convincing staff that it is easy to change. As a result, Meltz helped create 13 certified green restaurants and the company got behind the Meatless Mondays, helping to sell the idea to customers as something they could do themselves at home.

Dr. Melony Samuels, Executive Director of the Bed Stuy Campaign Against Hunger (BSCAH), noticed that food pantry clients were giving back certain foods because these foods were not their choice. To help give clients more choice, they created a “Superpantry,” modeled on supermarket where clients could choose more of what they wanted to eat.  She was surprised with how quickly fresh vegetables would fly off shelves. Since fresh vegetables were expensive and rarely donated to the food pantry, Dr. Samuels decided to start an urban farm. She identified vacant lot nearby to work with the owner on its transformation. After the farm was completed, adjacent neighbors came to Dr. Samuels for help planting their own farms using a manual she created.

In its first year, Dr. Samuels’ farm grew 1200 lbs food! She discussed the health benefits that she saw amongst farm volunteers: weight loss, lower blood pressure, reduced disease symptoms, taking less meds.  Dr. Samuels said that her work was only the beginning of solving a National crisis “Kids who eat junk — They’re bellies are full but they are still hungry.”

Ian Cheney shared his visionary project Truck Farm, documenting the story of urban agriculture in NYC through the filter of his 1/1000th acre plot, growing food in the bed of his pickup in Brooklyn using green roof techniques. “Truck Farm attracted young urban dwellers who rarely saw food grow, making suggestions for places to grow food.”  The most common suggestion amongst the youth: The Toilet! Cheney had no problem with the kids irreverence. In fact, he invited it. “We need to bring humor to the usually heavy dialogue around sustainable food.  We use the Truck Farm to spark dialogue.”

Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, told about how he herded sheep on Mount Aetna in Sicily as a romantic way to use physical work to solve philosophical problems. After he got a sense of the need to combine heart, hands and mind together, he began working on changing food policy. For instance, Viertel recently sent a video to Obama about his failing to mention sustainable food in his State of the Union address.  Obama cited Walmart’s efforts as part of the Country’s move to sustainability.  ”Obama handing off responsibility for food & farming to Walmart is like handing over offshore drilling oversight to BP” commented Viertel.

“‘Vote With Your Fork’ is a good rallying cry but many districts only have one candidate & can only vote for incumbent.” Viertel thinks that The “Enlightened Eater” is easy to manipulate by commercial interests but an “Engaged Eater” is harder to push around. Big Agriculture Corporations are scared of the “Engaged Eater” and they are fighting back.  For instance, at recent speeches by good food advocate Michael Pollan, the Farm Bureau has delivered buses full of volunteers who read questions off of pre-printed cards like: “Why do you hate American Family Farmer?” Viertel discussed how being “engaged” meant that we all would have to be ready for some strange, intense fights ahead from entrenched economic interests whose profits are endangered by changing the way we eat.

Session 3: Where are we going?

http://www.tedxmanhattan.org/webcast-session-3

Dr. William Li, head of Angiogenesis Foundation, appeared via a 2010 TEDTalk video ”Can We Eat to Starve Cancer?” Angiogenesis is the growth of blood vessels.  The proper balance of body’s blood vessels signal health. Without a blood supply, many microscopic cancers that arise continually in the body cannot grow and become deadly. Dr. Li found that diet is responsible for 30-35% of environmental causes of cancers. Dr. Li asked: “What can we ADD to our diets to reduce that risk?”

To answer this question, Dr. Li tested foods with supposed anti-angiogenic properties and discovered that combining two of these foods greatly improved effectiveness. I’m glad to hear that drinking a blend of Sencha & Dragon Teas fights cancer because it sounds like a pretty tasty flavor mix to me.

Dr. Li then appeared live at TEDxManhattan and Hatz interviewed him.
Hatz: Is there a local sustainable food connection to fighting cancer?
Dr. Li: Yes, we have begun to research this possible nexus.
Hatz: Any surprise foods?
Dr. Li: Dutch hard cheese.
Hatz: What about chocolate?
Dr. Li: Chocolate is the Holy Grail we hope to study the impact on angiogenesis.
Hatz: What’s the impact of quantity eaten?
Dr. Li: We are studying that and other related behaviors like preparation and combination.

Michael Conard, Assistant Director of Urban Design Lab at Columbia University, spoke about “Rebuilding our Food Infrastructure.” Conard stated tha most food crises are distribution problems. He cited the renowned Leopold Center study that shows average distance traveled by food is 1500 miles. What the Leopold Center did not show is that distance was same in 1925 but that food was shipped by rail with a much lesser carbon impact. Conard brought the issue of means of transportation to the foreground to show that distribution is a key to changing the way we eat and the impact of the food system on the planet.

Conard stated that health care costs related to treating obesity estimated to reach 50% GDP by 2080 if we don’t change current trends. At the same time, demand for local foods has increased dramatically over the last ten years.  Local fresh foods will play an important role in reversing these negative health effects of long haul industrial foods.

Conard posed the question “How do we increase supply to meet growing demand for local food?” Conard proposed an analysis of the “food shed” that would permit a re-alignment towards local production and distribution.  He suggested that a “Spoke & Hub System could support greater local production.” Conard concluded that “Food Hubs” can be developed to create opportunities for “synergy between distribution, processing and production.”

Conard concluded by stating “Access & availability of food is human right. Governments and cities need to create infrastructure to secure resource for all.”

Britta Riley, an artist and creator of Windowfarms.org. “Living in City, I rely on others for everything.” Riley said. “This interdependence can solve social problems through Open Source systems.” Riley wanted to devise a project that would make a difference in food system for people living in apartments, so she turned the best science she could find: NASA. In a way, Riley mused, her city apartment was about as natural as space ship.

She found that NASA had invested in making food using hydroponic using a liquified soil to nourish plants. After some exploration, Riley found that off-the-shelf commercial hydroponic systems were loud, energy guzzlers. So, she sought to improve design through open sourcing a prototype, receiving inputs from designers around the world.

Riley calls her on-going design process “R&DIY,” merging the corporate term R&D with the DIY to connote the collaborative process. Riley see the community created around the design changing behavior & relationships which is every bit as important as perfecting the function of the product.

Elizabeth U, founder of Finance for Food, stated that food businesses face hurdles to obtain access to capital.  There are so many different ways to fund a business and so many different types of food businesses that it’s hard to match dollars to values. U has been encouraged by more decentralized, disintermediated funding models like #Kickstarter which allows business to solicit unpaid backers and #Profounder which allows business to share some percentage of their profits through this online interface.

At base, U said, changing the way we eat may require that we change our thinking about investing. You can start with your bank which invests your money in places that you may or may not like. U encouraged the audience to “Ask your bank where it is investing?” If the investments sounds bad or the bank won’t answer you, U suggested that you consider moving your money to a bank investing in food system. U concluded that the most powerful way to make change in local food is to invest directly in local food producers. “The risk of investing in local food business is high but the higher risk is staying with industrial food as your only option.”

Musicians from Ethel reflect on role in TED from beginning & impact of real time collaboration & sharing which is what TED is about

In a quick interlude, Diane Hatz challenges all viewing parties around Country to undertake a project together over the next few months, submit the ideas to TEDx.  The best idea will be selected to join TEDx next year

Frederick Kaufman, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, asks “What is a Sustainability Index?” In recent research, Kaufman found that Big Ag businesses are trying to create a metric for “sustainability”.  Kaufman found this research to be sinister rather than sincere.  ”The process of self-regulation is called ‘Market Capture,’” Kaufman said, whereby you control the terms of knowledge.

Kaufman found that the problem inherent in many self-regulating standards is that they are not geared to measuring sustainability but rather set up for making money as efficiently as possible. “When we talk about food as an index, we are no longer talking about food.”

To understand the process of making a sustainability index a little bit better, he visited WalMart’s department dedicated to this work. On each of Walmart’s 125,000 products, the company intends to place a Sustainability Speedometer with 300+ factors leading to its score. Kaufman found this approach laudable and laughable in equal parts as it provided no real understanding of the complexity and no concrete guidance to the consumer.  In conclusion, Kaufman found that the Sustainability Index gave Walmart yet another way to market its good, keeping the customer happy but no better informed.

Curt Ellis, coFounder of FoodCorp, related how the Peace Corps was established in 1960.  During the course of the program, Peace Corps engaged 250,000 young leaders and showed how they could make change in the World. “In face of a National obesity epidemic,” Ellis stated “it seems time to launch a Peace Corps for improving school food, a Food Corps.” Food Corps could help organizations already working to improve school food could have foot soldiers to help scale up. “Kennedy talked about New Frontier,” Ellis said “but its Old Frontier that needs us now.”

Ellis asked: “What could Food Corps mean?” For Ellis, Food Corps means school-based agriculture, Farm to School programs, and cafeterias as places where food celebrated. “My hope is that we can take tired idea of Food Service and reimagine it as Real Food and National Service.”

Michel Nischan, Chef, CEO Wholesome Wave, said “Where there is flavor in the tomato, there is definitely joy,” he continued “there are also nutrients and health.”

Nischan asked: “Where do you get your food when you live in Food Desert? Quickie Mart? Why are there no grocery stores in Food Deserts?”

Nischan’s answer dispelled certain stereotypes about “culture.”  ”There are no grocery stores in food deserts because the people who live there can’t afford good, fresh food.”

Why is cheap food cheap? According to Nischan “Because it’s already been paid for by the government subsidies.” Nischan detailed how Wholesome Wave responds to affordability problem by doubling the money SNAP recipients use when buying fresh foods. Nischan laid out his vision about how local food entrepreneurs could be the “Superheroes” of sustainable food movement by making and circulating money in local community.  That’s how Nischan sees changing the way we eat.

In conclusion, I found that was a full and fulfilling day of inspiring talks representing a diversity of approaches to Changing the Way We Eat.

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