The Most Important Person Affecting the Future of Food

I just returned from The New York Times first annual conference on the Future of Food, held at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY. The conference was hosted by Mark Bittman and included many of today's thought leaders in the food movement. A major theme of the conference was that we are at the beginnings of what will be major changes in how we grow food and in how the world better feeds itself. This conference was a way to bring people together from all spectrums of the food nexus. There were writers, nonprofits, NGOs, government officials, food industry CEOs, consultants, farmers, ranchers, food wholesalers, media producers and homemakers there. The New York Times did, I think, a good job of inviting a good mix of people to start the conversation with. There was some complaint that ranchers and farmers could have been better represented. And I agree, they need a prominent seat at the table if we are going to make meaningful progress on changing the food system for the better. But of course, that doesn't mean they should have an overbearing seat at the table. I will be writing more on that later.

I will also be writing more about the conference and some of the ideas discussed in future blogs. There is so much that came out of the conference, that it's hard to know where to begin.

I thought I would start with a conversation that I had with one of the young ladies at the conference. She approached me and said that she was a homemaker, and she wanted to know what she could do to help change our current food system. She remarked that there were a lot of good, high-level ideas being discussed, but what does that mean for the stay-at-home mom who is raising three young children, in her case?

And the answer to that, I think, is that she and all of us who are consumers are at the most important level for affecting change. That's because, as was brought out many times at the conference, industry and farming methods and products sold will change when consumers demand it. As consumers, each one of us, no matter who we are or what we do, is the most important person in the food movement. We start by changing ourselves or by continuing to be smart consumers.

As more people buy organic foods, more farmers will adopt organic methods of farming. As more people show a willingness to buy blemished fruits and vegetables, the fewer fruits and vegetables will get thrown out before reaching the marketplace. Just doing that can stop 25% of agricultural water being used to grow plants that are then thrown out, not to mention the energy and other costs associated with such waste. More on all that later.

A stay-at-home mom, as well as all other moms and dads, whether working or staying at home to raise children, can help their families to make good choices for food. As was brought out at the conference, we need adults thinking like adults to help children learn right choices. We need to be adults to ourselves as well. 

That doesn't mean being dictatorial either. We live in a society that honors giving children the freedom to be creative and to think for themselves. We should continue to respect, but also seek out creative and supportive ways to help our children, spouses and other family members make smart choices.

Along those lines, I talked to another "mom" at the conference who told how she helped her children to take their Halloween candy and bake it into cookies. The children enjoyed doing that because it helped them to be creative with what they did with their candy. And the cookies, from what she told me, we're out of this world delicious.

But the real beauty of her innovative idea was that now, they were able to take the cookies and share them with others. The kids could take the cookies to school, for example, and proudly share them with their classmates as something they created. The cookies could also be a teaching moment for the kids to share them at a shelter. The parents might take some of the cookies into the office with them. The point of this exercise being that the children aren't eating all those empty calories. Instead, they're learning to create and share in a way that would not work if the candy were simply taken away from them.

That, I think, is what it means to be the adult in the room with the children. Today's mom and dads are shaping how their kids will eat, probably for the rest of their lives. And what the kids learn about how they eat and the habits they adapt will shape what food is and how it's grown going forward.

So, who is the most important person in the food system. We, the consumers are. We, the parents are. We all have a role. We all have many roles -- consumer, parent, spouse, etc. And the decisions we make and the actions we take will shape the world of food going forward.