April 15, 2015

Changing the Menu: Highlights from America Answers Conference

Joanna Mackenzie

Joanna Mackenzie

Research Assistant, Food System Policy

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Panelists at Changing the Menu: Tamar Haspel, Ricardo Salvador, Marion Nestle, Phil Lempert

Panelists at Changing the Menu: Tamar Haspel, Ricardo Salvador, Marion Nestle, Phil Lempert

This post is co-authored by Kate McCleary and Joanna Mackenzie.

How are millennials driving food trends? Do we really vote with our forks? Are junk food taxes regressive? These are some of the questions that bubbled up at America Answers: Changing the Menu, a conference hosted by the Washington Post. The conference featured policy makers, community advocates, industry leaders and other food and nutrition experts, each of whom contributed a unique perspective to the conversation on how to improve what Americans eat. CLF staff attended.

The conference was part of the Washington Post’s series of America Answers events, which provide forums to discuss the nation’s biggest challenges and innovative approaches and solutions from around the country. The event was live-streamed, and members of the audience (in-person and virtual) commented and asked questions of the panelists using the hashtag #AmericaAnswers. To watch the sessions, click here. Highlighted below are some of the key themes, notable quotes, and our thoughts on the conference.

Millennials are Driving Food Trends

According to Donnie Smith, President and Chief Executive of Tyson Foods, Inc., and one of the panelists, “The millennial generation is very concerned with the social aspects of food production… They’re just concerned that something that happened in a faraway place that they can’t see is happening responsibly.” Millennials, a term defined by the PEW Charitable Trusts as the generation between the ages of 18-34 during the year 2015, are estimated to become the nation’s largest living generation this year. Despite being more disconnected from the food chain and farms than ever before, today’s young adults care very much about transparency and social responsibility in the food system.   Millennials don’t just want food that tastes good; they want food they can feel good about eating, and the food industry is starting to pay attention. Hopefully that will result in food that is better for the environment, local communities and our health.

Supply versus Demand

Panelists touched on the age-old issue of supply and demand, with most of the industry leaders from the restaurant, grocery and food manufacturing sectors, saying the power to change the food system lies with consumers. “We don’t make what we want to sell, we make what consumers want to buy,” said Brad Haley, Chief Marketing Officer of CKE Restaurants, which is the parent company of restaurant chains, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. Steve Burnham, President of the Safeway Eastern Division stated that, “Change starts with the consumer. We change in response to the changes in America’s eating and spending habits.” Many of the panelists touted examples of how their companies listened to consumer demands, and as a result, now offer healthier options, such as salads, lean burgers, or more locally sourced fruits and vegetables. Other panelists commented that the real issue is actually not enough supply to meet the demand. When referring to antibiotic free animal products, Dan Kish, Senior VP of Food and Panera Bread said, “Originally antibiotic free was tough because the sourcing wasn’t there, but now it’s easier. It’s a supply issue, the demand is certainly there.”

While we certainly do “vote with what we eat,” as butcher and author Adam Dansforth said at the conference, the food producers and distributors are also responsible for what goes on the “ballot” i.e. our plates. Absolutely, consumers need to create demand for sustainably produced and healthy food by asking for it and buying it, but changing the food system is going to require more than offering salads and organic yogurt. It’s going to require a commitment from all parties, including farmers, processors, retailers, institutions, and policy makers to start promoting and implementing practices that foster healthy people and a healthy environment. What might these actions look like? A few examples are implementing responsible animal waste management practices, discontinuing sub-therapeutic antibiotic use in food animals, providing humane animal housing, passing laws to protect consumers from unfair marketing and food labeling practices, ensuring federal dietary guidance is based on science not political agendas, and agricultural policies that take into account the environment and public health.

Policies and Education

When asked what was on her wish list, Marion Nestle, and Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU said, “I want an agricultural policy that’s linked to health policy, firmly and inextricably.” But as shown at the conference, figuring out which policies are best and trying to get everyone to agree on any policy is a tough job. When asked whether or not she would support a junk food tax, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) replied, “No, it’s regressive. The debate then becomes which bad foods are you going to make more expensive?” Instead she recommended funneling money into education programs that would help teach people how to eat healthier, arguing that taxing “junk” foods would result in less money being available for people to buy fruits and vegetables. Matthew Dillon, Director of Agricultural Policy and Programs at Clif Bar & Company, highlighted the fact that we also need to educate people on the food system, not just nutrition. “If we’re going to have food literacy, we have to have agricultural literacy. I think most of the American public simply doesn’t understand the state of agriculture in the US today. There’s this obfuscation of the real costs of conventional chemical food production on the health of the planet, the health of the people, and the health of American farmworkers. So it needs to start in the schools… we need to really focus on true cost accounting of agriculture and what we’re buying into when we’re buying food.”

Where were the Farmers?

While we admired the diverse array of speakers, one detail caught our attention via the screen scrolling the live feed from Twitter. NYFarmer tweeted: “Where are the farmer organization speakers at #AmericaAnswers? Quit talking ag policy if farm groups not there.” The closest representative of the farming community at the conference was probably Nicolette Hahn Niman, rancher at BN Ranch in California, and author of the book, Defending Beef.  Having more actual farmers at the conference could have perhaps helped counteract perceptions that the sustainable food movement is out of touch with the realities of food production and ordinary consumers. One message was made clear from the conference: In order to come up with sustainable solutions for America’s food system, all groups, including farmers, food industry leaders, policy makers, academia, consumers and activists need to be sitting at the table, and need to bring a dish to share.

Image: Kate McCleary, 2015.

One Comment

  1. Posted by Gerri French, MS, RDN, CDE

    Perhaps having the conference on the farm could be a way to have the farmer attend. Small farmers are very busy and reluctant to attend workshops. The larger farmers that are subsidized usually are the ones represented at conferences. In addition, I have found that many farmers are quite shy about public speaking in a classroom; their “props” that assist with their communication are in the field (compost, birds, bees…)
    Creating a generic “powerpoint” with beautiful photos of farms might be a way to get the farmers comfortable speaking. By the way, I am the creator of the Santa Barbara Food and Farm Adventures Meetup group where we visit farms and food related events to learn about where our food comes from and how it is produced. I promote farmers who are wonderful health care providers.

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