Photo: Jason Houston, via FlickerAttending the TEDx Manhattan event on the future of food and farming was a day-long drink from a fire hose of cutting-edge ideas, sobering realities, and sincere enthusiasm about how America can eat better and farm more sustainably.
Since Time’s Bryan Walsh offered a comprehensive write-up of the day’s highlights here and here, I’m focusing my coverage on conversations I had with attendees and speakers as they came off the stage. Much of the offstage discussion centered on the looming farm bill, the critical legislation that guides and funds federal food policy.
TEDx, an offshoot of the “ideas worth spreading” TED conferences, describes itself as “a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group.”
After winning an Oscar for co-producing An Inconvenient Truth, Laurie David enlisted more than 50 child-care experts, writers, celebrities, activists, musicians and chefs – including Michael Pollan and Alice Waters – to contribute to her new book on the importance of The Family Dinner.
After leading off the discussion with an account of how she rediscovered the simple but critical act of having a family meal, she went into detail about its environmental benefits.
“Since the kitchen is the greenest room in the house, all these environmental issues … cross the dinner plate, including climate change. The dinner is as much about the conversation as it is about the food.”
Off-stage,fter watching Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook’s presentation on the farm bill, David told me:
“I think the government should be using taxpayer dollars to provide a real safety net for farmers and to help them be better environmental stewards. We should be shifting our farm bill dollars to reward farmers for preserving water resources, reducing chemical use and curbing the pollution that causes climate change.”
Miriam Latzer, owner and operator Loose Caboose Farm in Clermont, N.Y., came to TEDx armed with specific ideas and policy recommendations for the 2012 farm bill and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Having more control over our supply chain is critical. When there was a farm on every road it wasn’t that hard to get supplies. So conceptually in the Hudson Valley you have a bunch of small farmers in an area, but we’re often trucking supplies from hundred or thousands of miles – local manufacturing or even a well-run warehouse would make a huge difference. When you’re small, you’re not getting the bulk discount.”
“Education for the next wave of farmers is critical. Land grant universities have very a conventional focus, with funding coming from the federal government and agribusiness – if we could have more funds for organic field research and studies that would look at, say, different varieties of tomatoes that can withstand blight, there’s no telling what smaller and organic-focused farms could accomplish. But these land grant universities are focused on churning out large-scale, conventional-growing-minded farmers.”
“And a single-payer insurance plan would help every small business in America, regardless,” Miriam said with a weary laugh.
“I came to TEDx basically to connect with other people and a national audience that is working toward making change in our food system and to find partners to work on the issue at a national level, ” said Dave Ring, organic farmer and owner of Farm Stand in Muncie, Ind. Farm Stand is an organic grocery store and eatery that buys from from local organic farms.
“I picked up some good pointers from the presentations and view this TEDx event as an important first step. Made a lot of connections and events like this need to happen more around the country. It’s good to get out and experience new perspectives. I am resolved to work on the national issue of the farm bill at the local level.”
On that note, I asked Dave if he would ever consider attending an event like the annual industrial grain expo – Commodity Classic.
“I would be open to it. I like to talk to people form all different walks, and I like to spread information and share ideas, but I’d want some of the agenda to be relevant to me.”
During his presentation, Josh Viertel, president and founder of Slow Food USA, gave a glimpse of how his powerhouse grassroots group plans to be a major player in the upcoming farm bill debate by showing a YouTube clip of him asking President Obama why it’s cheaper to feed kids Fruit Loops than actual fruit.
Offstage, Veirtel talked about the upcoming legislative battle.
“This fight is important simply because most subsidies support the food that is bad for us and not the food that is good for us.”
When asked which US Department of Agriculture program is the most beneficial, he said, “It’s small now in terms of funding, but the farm-to-school program is fantastic.”
And the worst USDA program? “USDA’s habit of buying up industrial food that we heavily subsidize and then feeding it back to kids in schools,” Viertel replied.
David Murphy, founder and director of Food Democracy Now in Clear Lake, Iowa – a grassroots community dedicated to building a sustainable food system that protects the natural environment, sustains farmers and nourishes families – had this take:
“It was inspiring that this TEDx event spent an entire day talking about food and agriculture, since many of the problems facing us as a nation and globally will only be solved by reforming food and agricultural production.”
“From improving poorly allocated farm subsidies to school lunches, the answers to major problems such as climate change, hunger, obesity and proper resource management can be found in our fields and urban gardens, from Iowa to Manhattan to India and beyond.”