Table Scraps From the Nascent Food Revolution

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I wrote about my TEDx Manhattan conference on sustainable food on the mainpage today, but before I moved on to hydrofracking, budget battles and the usual slate of depressing environment stories, I wanted to offer a few more tidbits from an excellent series of talks. And if you want to see the conference for yourself, the webcast for the entire day should be available here for the next couple of weeks. (I add italics below when I’m commenting on a speaker’s presentation.)

  • Laurie David—of An Inconvenient Truth and, yes, ex-husband Larry David fame—led off the conference by hyping the social and health benefits of sitting down regularly to family dinner. (If that sounds familiar, TIME’s Nancy Gibbs wrote a cover story on that very idea back in 2006.) David noted that the average American meal now lasts less than 20 minutes—barely enough time for everyone to eat, let alone talk. But if we take time to cook and prepare food—then sit down to enjoy it and actually talk to one another—family dinners can help us develop better eating habits and better social habits. I definitely agree with David that frequent family dinners are good for dinner and for families, though I do wonder if it’s correlative, not causative—families that can afford the time to sit down and eat are more likely to be wealthier (not to mention they’re more likely to be together). That cuts to an economic problem that complicates the rhetoric around sustainable food: how much of our poor eating habits, our fast food dependency, is a result of the fact that we work longer hours, or that families often have two working parents or are single parent? Can we solve our food problem without solving our economic one?
  • Ken Cook—the president of the Environmental Working Group—gave my favorite talk of the day: a breakdown of the farm billion, the multi-billion dollar legislative colossus that governs our food system. (TIME has covered this as well—Michael Grunwald wrote a detailed and passionate cover on the food bill back in 2007.) Cook noted that thousands of absentee farmers receive government subsidies—and showed a Google map of all the recipients who live in Manhattan, where the only farming is happening on rooftops. (Click here to access EWG’s detailed farm subsidy database.) “The subsidy programs have helped and continues to help many family farmers,” Cook said. “But in many important ways they are broken and it is time to change them.” Cool noted that while the food stamp program—the single biggest item in the farm bill—is incredibly important, it’s also terribly underfunded, with a family of three receiving benefits that work out to just $1.50 per meal per person. Cook also pointed out that 10% of recipients get 74% of farm subsidies, reinforcing the industrialization of the food system. And lastly, Cook pointed out, “it turns out you don’t even have to be living to get a food subsidy.” (See this Government Accountability Office study on the subject.) And very little of that money goes to support organic farming, despite the industry’s growth.
  • Dr. William Li—a cancer researcher and the head of the Angiogenesis Foundation—answered questions about his work on changing the diet to stave off cancer. Check out the video of his original TED talk below:
  • Dr. Scott Kahan—an obesity expert at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health—explained just how obesogenic our environment is today, where the default food choice is almost always the fattening choice. (Bingo—I wrote about this concept for TIME in 2008.) Portions have gotten bigger and bigger even as calories—at least in fast food—have gotten cheaper. Kahan used soda bottles as a simple example: in the 1960s the default size for a bottle of Coke was 6.5 oz., and the “king” size was 12 oz. Today the default size is the 20 oz. plastic bottle, and it’s harder and harder to even find the 12 oz. can. “The unhealthy foods are far cheaper than the healthy foods,” Kahan said. The billions of dollars food companies spend on marketing their unhealthy, highly processed food just tips the scale further. “Having Shrek on a package, kids will actually say the food tastes better,” Kahan said. “The dietary guidelines tell us one thing, but the environment tells us something else.” Until that changes, the battle against obesity—especially in children—is going to be an uphill one.
  • Ian Cheney—who produced the food documentary King Corn—spoke about his new project: truck farming. I could explain it—well, I could try—but the video does a much better job. And there’s music:
  • Josh Viertel—the young president of Slow Food USA, the American offshoot of the Italian movement dedicated to savoring food—narrated a tour of his pilgrimage to the sustainable food movement, which began when he was a philosophy grad student at Harvard and included a stop as a shepherd in Italy. (Yes, the sheep herding kind of shepherd.) But Viertel hit perhaps the most important note of the day—the need for the food movement, broadly defined, to get serious about politics. “A movement of enlightened eaters is fantastic, but it’s not enough,” Viertel said. “We need to change from a movement of enlightened eaters to a movement of people engaged in changing their community, a movement of people engaged as citizens.” As Viertel put it: “slow food is a gateway drug for social engagement.” Even better, he went on, “we could have a Tea Party for the food movement.” What Viertel pointed to is absolutely key—it’s the difference between what is essentially a consumer movement, and an expensive one at that, and a true social/political movement. I think food really can be a motivating forces for change—that’s why I wrote this. But the food movement has a long way to go before it reaches that point.
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