Thursday, May 5, 2011

How to Change the Food System? One Table at a Time

Yesterday, an important discussion took place on the issues of safe food, sustainability and health of our people and our planet with a conference called "The Future of Food" held in Washington, DC (archive of video highlights here). In February, there was a TEDx Manhattan conference on the food system called "Changing the Way We Eat" (archive here) that touched on related topics and the intermingling of ecology, health, politics, and economics. There are a lot of amazing people who care about food and health that are bringing up hard questions about our current food system and how we can feed the nation and the world without sacrificing individual health, public health or the health of our planet.

At the Future of Food conference, stalwarts of the food movement Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Prince Charles of Wales (who knew?) gave their perspectives on the long road we have traveled and the long road ahead. On hand were a wide range of advocates (Josh Veritel of Slow Food USA, Laurie David, who is extending her environmental activism to the dinner table and to advocacy against antibiotics in meat, Marion Nestle, leading nutritionist and founder of Food Politics) and journalists (Joe Yonan of The Washington Post, Tom Philpott, Jane Black, and Paula Crossfield and Naomi Starkman of Civil Eats) who called out, via twitter and in person, big food on their arguments about the economic necessity of big-AG techniques and policies all day.

Following along at a distance, the conference was inspiring, enlightening, and, at times, infuriating in the ways that listening to the church choir might be when you are living in the red-light district. How can good food advocates get the message out more broadly that safe, good food is not a luxury, but a necessity? Furthermore, as Eric Schlosser argued in the Washington Post this week, how can we get across that being a "foodie" is not elitist?

The soapbox I stand on is family dinner, but I do believe that the future of the food lies around the family dinner table. Michael Pollan put it simply as "More and more, I realize our food problem is a cooking problem."  Caring about what we put on the table for our families and knowing how to prepare real food are two of the first steps to changing the food system. Caring about getting to the table in the first place may indeed preempt that. We need to embrace a culture where the time spent to shop, cook, and eat together as a family is viewed as essential, not a luxury. Family dinner can consist of two roommates, a single parent and kids, a large brood of multiple generations, or any other configuration you can think of, as long as they are breaking bread together. We need to to value this simple act and get around a table together, if we are to ever change the way we eat.

Agenda and Speakers for The Future of Food Conference, May 2011

Changing the Way We Eat, TEDx Manhattan, Feb 2011, an event to celebrate the food movement and inspire families and communities to commit to real food.


  1. I'm with you. Change will come from empowering people and getting them to change their actions.

    We need to slow down and appreciate food and the company that goes with it.

  2. I am a foodservice manager. I see the same issue over and over. Parents want me to fix thier kids, but they need to fix themselves. They need to cook at home with their kids. So your child does not do every sport out there, or art class, or piano. There is a very real and valuable lesson in being at home, as a family, cooking and eating together.
    Great article!

  3. Grace - Thank you for such a beautifully written piece on the importance of family meals. I had goosebumps reflecting back on the conference earlier this week and the power held in that room.

    Our country is facing a health crisis that is completely preventable with better diet. And that must start at birth. As a parent, I hold the potential & responsibility to teach my children how to brush their teeth, support their education, and teach them how to live a healthful life. We do that by making family meals a top priority in our home.

    My kids are involved in planning, shopping, preparing, serving, and cleaning up family meals. They know about "growing foods" and occasional treats - which still come from real food. Every parent needs to take on this responsibility.

    They can't do it alone. We who can, need to support them, educate and demonstrate how to make it happen. I'm proud to partner with you, Laurie David, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, Robyn O'Brien, and the others who have made this their personal mission.

    Thank you Grace.

  4. I am so on board with your message about breaking bread together. I am inspired by Alice Waters' book "Edible Schoolyards", where what really brought somewhat disparate people together was working elbow-to-elbow in the garden and the kitchen, and of course at the lunch table.

    My wife and I were both raised by the Greatest Generation, in which dinner time was sacrosanct. When we were first married, we didn't have a good set of cooking skills, but we knew what was healthy. We started with Chinese stir fry and worked our way up to more difficult fare. But we always made it a priority to cook and eat together, even before we had kids.

    Thanks for your voice on this critical issue.


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