I attended part of the Good Food Festival and Conference in Santa Monica this past weekend. What began as general curiosity quickly turned into an intense interest in the invigorating discussion that arose. The Conference was divided into several parts, and they clearly spoke to different audiences. The focused talks of Friday’s Food Policy and Public Health Summit, for example, stood in stark contrast to the food demonstrations and generalized discussions about topics like Media and Food on Saturday. I noted the range of speakers present at the event: Policymakers, consumer advocacy groups, farmers, distributors, journalists, chefs, school food service directors, and more. In two days, I met bloggers, a farmer, a Slow Food organizer, a fish market vendor, an attorney, people working in PR and media, just to name a few.
Conferences like these have a tendency to inspire and inflate without much substance. But I found the Friday talks informative and in depth. Of course, the food movement-the term is woefully simplistic-has its fair share of cheerleaders. But my main takeaway was that food issues are pervasive and layered. There are so many interrelated factors: Agriculture, resource conservation, public health, socioeconomics, cultural values, pleasure, politics, economics, ethics, and more.
Here were some highlights of the conference:
- Learning about initiatives like CA FreshWorks fund and the CA Healthy Food Financing Initiative (AB 2720), both efforts to bring healthy food retailers to underserved communities
- Mud Baron, seated at a panel of researchers and policy types, bluntly eschewing the need for more policy papers and calling for more action. He also claimed he was fired as Policy Director of the Los Angeles Unified School District because of his engagement with Jamie Oliver.
- Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, explaining how Chipotle expanded from a single store into a national chain, saying that there is about a 1:1 ratio of stores to small farms supported. Note that Chipotle was also a sponsor of the event.
- Listening to Judith Bell of PolicyLink talk about food access and say there is a pent-up demand for healthy food among poor communities.
- Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved describing Walmart and similar corporations as being necessary distribution channels to keep sustainable food from becoming niche
- Mary Lee of PolicyLink describing the food system as falling into two tiers, the latter tier being the food insecure. She described food as being a function of race, class, and place (i.e. your zip code).
- Community Health Council talking about a year-long pilot focusing on revitalizing four food retailers in South Los Angeles, an area described both as a food desert and a food swamp (too many fast food retailers).
- Watching Evan Kleiman and Sang Yoon (of Father’s Office) conduct a cooking demo. Yum. Evan made a tomato pie (in a tiny oven that looked like my toaster oven). Sang made a delicious Malaysian rempah that involved a billion spices and patience.
- In a talk titled Can Local and Organic Feed the World?, (Asian) farmer Molly Gean said, “Our plants are smaller, our yields are lower, our prices our higher. But it tastes WAY better.”
- A Media and Food Panel moderated by Evan Kleiman and bringing together Jonathan Gold, Gustavo Arellano, Tom Philpott, Kerry Trueman, and Russ Parsons.
- Gustavo Arellano, on a double standard: “Mexicans go to their cousin's house to slaughter a pig, and people call the health deparatment. Hipsters do it, and it's a movement.”
- Kerry Trueman, quoting her husband as saying, “If you eat ethnically, you can’t eat ethically.” Whoa. That is a loaded generalization.
- Evan Kleiman describing there being two worlds in the food community: (1) blogosphere/photographers covering the pleasures of food; and (2) politics of food. Jonathan Gold following up on the point to say food is inherently political, and that people form themselves into tribes.
- Mr. Gold also talked about Chipotle, praising the company’s implantation of sustainable practices. Russ Parsons asked, “What does that mean?” He noted that calling food “organic” obviates other problems, and that one must look at the entire food system.
- Tom Philpott, while conceding that changing practices of behemoths like Walmart is necessary, contended it is not sufficient. He argued for the need to create new institutions that create wealth within communities (citing Growing Power).
- An audience member challenged the term “food security,” asking why the term “hunger” doesn’t work. In response, well, there was no direct response. Jonathan Gold said hunger is a sensation, whereas food security is not knowing where your next meal is coming. Evan Kleiman said food security is a term that’s about access. But is that it? Consider these varied definitions of food (in)security:
- Wikipedia: “Food security refers to the availability of food and one's access to it. A household is considered food-secure when its occupants do not live in hunger or fear of starvation.”
- UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) cites the World Food Summit of 1996: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” The FAO says food insecurity hinges on four prongs: availability, access, utilization, and stability.
- US AID: “Food security means having, at all times, both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life. A family is food secure when its members do not live in hunger or fear of hunger.”
- World Health Organization also cites the World Food Summit: “The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing ‘when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life’. Commonly, the concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people's dietary needs as well as their food preferences.” The WHO goes on to say the food security involves availability, access, and use.
- USDA: “Food security for a household means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” The USDA defines food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways,” such ways meaning ways other than stealing, scavenging, or reliance on emergency supplies.