QUICK TAKE: What I Learned About Food

The below is a personal brain dump, not intended to be coverage of the event. For coverage by the professionals and to see video, visit http://www.americaanswers.com

March 26, 2015, we (The Washington Post) convened “America Answers: Changing the Menu,” a conference focused on how  to improve the way we eat and move. America Answers is a live/digital/print editorial series focused grassroots solutions to challenges Washington has proven ineffective at solving.

These days, that is a nearly infinite list of challenges to address.

This week, we were joined by the Secretary of Agriculture, Senators, congressional members, community leaders, chefs corporate leaders and activists, who shared their views. Here are three things I learned.

1. Millennials have changed America’s diet, the food business and agricultural demand more than we know. The under-35 crowd is driving the demand for healthier food, organics and for transparency as to what goes into their food. We had no specific plan to discuss millennials and food, but this was the running thread through every conversation. The up-and-coming generation is not content to have food put in front of them without being told where it came from, how it was made and whether the company that provides it is an ethical company. The U.S. is decades past its agrarian roots, so the facts of what happens on a farm or ranch are not second nature to the younger set. They demand more discussion as to what they are eating and how it got to them. It’s changing marketing, agricultural demand, business practices, and the business of distributing food whether by a restaurant or a grocery store.

2. People are passionate about food issues. As Steve Case pointed out, “100% of people eat food”. When 100% of people are impacted, there will be opinions. This reaches beyond the question of how to provide food for the 49 million Americans who rise, live and sleep daily without adequate nutrition. There seems to be an uncrossable gap between the organic crowd and the GMO crowd, who deeply distrust each other. There is the battle between corporate mega-farming and the small farm, including tiny urban farms. The combatants in the age-old vegetarian versus meat conflict, seem to have settled into an uneasy acceptance of each others’ points of view, with the main issue now focused on ethical ethical meat production versus the all-or-nothing debate over meat. Underlying all of this is the simmering resentment against food and beverage corporations that have grown ever-larger. This issue, regardless of industry has proven to be a point of friction. When companies become “too big” to fully understand, mistrust follows. Oh, people also have different palettes, but that seems secondary to all other questions.

3. Food, while highly politicized, is also one place where agreement can be found. One of the few recent congressional successes was passage of last year’s Farm Bill. Senator Debbie Stabenow, when asked how it was so “easy” to pass compared to so many other crucial pieces of legislation, pointed out that it was a bill that was completely gutted, and re-written.  Supporters exercised quiet persuasion across party lines and debated the issue out of the media soap box. Currently, there is a battle over SNAP (the food stamp program). One side shouts that SNAP is making the poor fat by leaving them to make their own food decisions and the other side shouts that freedom means making one’s own choices. An area where there seems to be some real localize progress is school food programs. For example, we heard the successes in the Richmond school system. The realization that for many of the poor, a child’s only nutritious meal is at school. This has given rise to an increasing number of schools offering breakfast programs, and seeking ways to extend proper nutrition after school hours.

We also heard inspiring stories such as that of Seitu Jones, a Minneapolis artist who served a meal to 2,000 people in his home city. Denisa Livingstone shared the painful but successful process through which the Navajo nation was able to tax certain inarguably unhealthy foods, making healthy foods the less expensive option. When asked if such makes sense for the rest of the country, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said “No. it’s regressive.” When pressed, she suggested that it’s better to take whatever money it would take to administer such a tax and spend it to education people about nutritious eating. We learned that mature meat is more flavorful (most chickens only live to the ripe old age of 6 weeks), tenderloin is the worst cut of meat (the shoulder is the better choice) and many other food facts. Nearly everyone had a personal tale to tell about how food culture is passed through families, evoking memories and passing along values from generation to generation around the table.

I wasn’t expecting to sit through every session. Most of the time, I catch the highlights of my own projects through one-on-one conversations, but found myself fascinated with what unfolded when the stakeholders were put in the room.

And I might even make a few different choices as a result.

We thought we were addressing a big problem, but in the end, much of it comes down to individual behaviors.

The above is a personal brain dump, not intended to be coverage of the event. For coverage by the professionals and to see video, visit http://www.americaanswers.com