In the belly of the food movement: Report from the 2007 Food and Society Conference

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I spent most of last week in Traverse City, Michigan, at the Food and Society Conference sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The foundation foots the astronomical bill for the whole thing, from rooms in a three-star resort to meals (sourced mostly from local farms) for three days for 550 people. All attendees have to pay is for their transportation there.

I had never heard of this conference until I was invited, and in fact was only vaguely aware of the foundation itself thanks to its mentions on National Public Radio. I was skeptical of accepting, given the name the foundation shares with the breakfast-cereal empire, and somewhat daunted by the $750 price tag for my plane ticket. However, some quick research revealed that while a large part of the foundation's $7.8 billion in assets is held in Kellogg stock — it's the corporation's largest shareholder, actually — the foundation has a separate board and makes its $300-million-plus in grants a year independently. Looking further, I learned that it funds some amazing grassroots projects in its focus areas of health, food systems and rural development, youth and education, and philanthropy and volunteerism.

But what cinched it for me was the guest list. Among the many FASC attendees whose names I recognized were Ann Cooper, the firebrand reformer of Berkeley's school lunch program; Dan Imhoff, author of "Food Fight," the excellent guide to the Farm Bill; and Lucas Benitez, cofounder of the coalition of the Immokalee Workers of Florida, the tomato pickers who recently persuaded McDonald's to give them a penny-a-pound raise — their first in three decades. There would be asparagus farmers and sheep ranchers and Midwestern academics and urban food-justice activists and D.C. policy wonks and authors and chefs and community-garden starters and city government task-forcers. To me, it looked like a vast buffet of conversational desserts. I was salivating.

Then I learned that the conference is invitation-only, designed to bring together a cross-section of "leaders in the food movement," as identified by the foundation. Given that we started the Ethicurean not even a year ago — and while our readership has grown amazingly in that time, we ain't no BoingBoing — I felt like a freshman who'd been invited to senior prom. Nervous, excited, and afraid I would spill food on myself.

I needn't have worried. Starting from the luggage carousel at the tiny Traverse City airport, when a shaggy guy in tie-dye who asked about my Fatted Calf t-shirt turned out to be Sandor Katz, the fermentation guru and author of "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved," I was talking nonstop, 90 miles a minute, to one fascinating individual after the next. I met people while standing in line for lunch, on the bus to dinner, even in the women's restroom. When I went back to my hotel room each night, my throat was dry and my brain was abuzz.

Everyone I met was doing something completely different, from making cheese to studying rural communities to lobbying congresspeople, but we all had one thing in common: we want to change the U.S. food system so that small farmers and farmworkers can make a decent living from it; so that it produces more food that is healthy for us, our communities, and the planet; and so that such food can be accessible to everyone, regardless of where you live or how much you make. (The single best way to shut up cynics who characterize the food movement as primarily "elitist" — made up mostly of white, upper-middle-class do-gooders who think shopping at Whole Foods can change the world — would be to barricade them in the conference's ballroom until they found one person who fit that stereotype.)

Many FASC attendees had been working on reforming the food system for years, even decades. But instead of being bitter about the snail's pace of progress, they seemed excited that a tipping point has at last been reached. Whether you credit Michael Pollan's best-selling "Omnivore's Dilemma," or blame the numerous contaminated-food scandals, you can't deny that the food movement has scored a place at the national table ... even if only way down at the end, seated well after the war in Iraq and Britney Spears' latest shenanigans.

A real opportunity exists to nudge not just consumer behavior, but state and federal policy in directions more aligned with a food system like the one described above. Which is why Ricardo Salvador, the director of Kellogg's Food Systems and Rural Development program (and a former Iowa State agronomy professor), opened the conference with a clear goal: to support and drive changes in the food system so that by 2016, at least 10 percent of all U.S. food would be "healthy, green, fair, and affordable."

Doesn't sound that hard, does it? After all, we keep hearing that sales of organic food are growing at eye-popping rates, and that farmers can't keep up with demand. That's true, said Salvador, but then he showed some sobering charts and graphs, which I'll summarize roughly:

  • Total U.S. food sales from all channels are valued at $1.3 trillion, but only $942.1 billion of that is food (the total includes non-grocery items sold in supermarkets, labor costs in restaurants, etc.)
  • The so-called "alternative" food channel, which includes Community Supported Agriculture programs and farmers markets, generates just $3.1 billion in sales, while organic/natural food sold in grocery stores accounts for $6.7 billion
  • All told, of that $942.1 billion, less than 1.7% of food sold in America can be classified as healthy, green, fair, and affordable.

To reach the goal of 10% — or $94 billion in sales of what, for the sake of brevity, I will call "real food" — via the CSA/farmers-market channel alone, sales would have to increase 30% year over year.

"And that's iPod territory, not broccoli," said Salvador, which got a good laugh.

Instead, the Kellogg Foundation has proposed to devote some of its considerable resources and power to increasing the sales of real food in the retail grocery channel by a seemingly modest 0.5% per year. Because supermarkets are the Godzillas of food sales, accounting for $375 billion worth of food sold annually, that half of one percent growth in real food could achieve the 10 percent all by itself.

In the coming few weeks, I will write more about how Food and Society attendees received this proposal (hint: it wasn't all positive), and what kinds of programs Kellogg thinks will support the 10% goal. Also on the to-do list from the conference: to report on the awesome new documentary "King Corn," which has a shot at being the "Inconvenient Truth" for food; on the Immokalee Workers' triumph over McDonald's; and the Good Natured Family Farms cooperative's ground-breaking partnership with Kansas City's Balls Food Stores supermarket chain.

2 Responsesto “In the belly of the food movement: Report from the 2007 Food and Society Conference”

  1. Marc Gunther says:

    Terrific post, but sobering: For all the attention given to the growth of organic, slow food, localism and CSAs, it is striking to see what a small percentage of the food business that represents. I saw something similar this weekend during a brief visit to the exhibit floor of the Food Marketing Institute convention in Chicago--booth after booth of processed food, a great emphasis on convenience, lots of food carrying the meaningless "natural" label.

    Having said all that, I'm eager to hear more about how Kellogg plans to drive us to its 10% goal. And I want to know how to get on the invitation list for that event!

  2. Farmer Deb says:

    One of the questions I ask at the end of these large gatherings is always, "How many farmers were there?" As an aspiring young farmer and fair food from family farmers activist, I am often disappointed at the number of farmers that are invited and encouraged to participate.

    I know it is like the chicken and the egg argument, but if we don't have more farmers able to make a living in sustainable food production, then the model is not sustainable.

    A friend of mine has a 175 member CSA and made a whopping $10,000 last year after 80 hour work weeks in the field. Funny, his tomatoes went to Whole Foods, but he cannot afford to shop there.

    Fair prices for farmers are essential for a sustainable system.