Ask the Ethicurean: How do I work to change the food system?

We recently received an email from a reader asking for career advice on how best to make a difference in the food system. He has given me permission to post it here with his name removed — I'll call him Reader D instead. Our suggestions follow, and we'd love to hear yours as well.

I have been reading The Ethicurean for about 3 years through Google reader. I truly enjoy reading your posts and trying to spread the word about the current state of our food chain.

Currently, I am working as a systems engineer outside of DC and am enrolled in an MBA program for a career change. The more I think about it, the more I know that I want to work in the food industry - working to change it. However, I am finding it increasingly difficult to identify a worthwhile opportunity where I can truly help change the current state of food and agriculture.

I have thought about entering the government consulting world and working with the Department of Ag or the FDA but am not sure if that will effect real change. I could always try to purchase a farm and raise produce/animals to supply the local restaurants and food markets, but I don't think it is a real use of my skills.

That is why I am asking for your help. Do you have any suggestions about careers in this field or people I can talk to? Thank you in advance for your help.

I put Reader D's question to the Ethicurean team via our list-serv. The "team" is made up of mostly of people just like this reader: eaters who got politicized a few years ago, although a couple of us work full-time for food-related nonprofits. We think that there are as many ways to change the food system as there are things wrong with it, so we can understand how one's mind can boggle at where to start: Grassroots — helping small farmers grow their businesses, say, or connecting low-income neighborhoods to fresh foods? Or grasstops — working directly on policy initiatives?

D., it's really just a matter of zeroing in on what pulls you, and then assessing how you can bring your talents to bear on that problem. I personally am most interested in issues around meat — perhaps because I was a vegetarian for 11 years — so to see what they are up close, I volunteer for a local ranch. Because I am a big, giant nerd, instead of mucking out pig pens, I help them manage their CSA by handling most of their email and Internet needs. Other Ethicurean team members are working to help start a local-food market or serving food at area food banks, among other activities. We really believe that you can learn a lot, including about what interests you, just by jumping in and doing.

"Just start talking to people," advises Jennifer M. "Chat up the farmers at the farmers markets, talk to friends, find a local farm organization (Grange or Farmers Union or what have you), go to food-related meetings — and just start talking about what you want to do or what you think you can offer, and listen to what their ideas and concerns are. What has amazed me about this whole process of setting up a local-foods market (see her post today on Local Roots) is the unexpected connections with people — a word in the right ear, even when you have no idea what that person can offer, can open so many doors."

I think that Reader D's technology background would make him very useful in helping farmers and local-food artisans market themselves up on the Internet, by setting them up with not just a simple website, but also a blog, email list-serv, and some sort of online shopping cart and back-end inventory management system. Simon Huntley of Small Farm Central has built an entire business around helping small farmers create an online presence. Perhaps he is looking for a business partner?

The Ethicurean's indefatigable school-food dynamo Debra Eschmeyer has lots of ideas close to home for Reader D.

Policy Row to Hoe: He could intern for a plethora of congressional offices and focus on Agriculture, Nutrition, Energy, Transportation, or Technology, all of which affect our movement for real food that sustains a culture, not a commodity. Focus on upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization (the federal legislation that determines what 30 millions kids eat at school) or the spending of the economic stimulus funds or green jobs.

System Row to Hoe: He could help build a system like Fresh Fork so that famers can deliver to one central location and institutions can purchase, i.e. so that the DC schools have easy access to the freshest, highest quality foods. Local foraging made easy! There is a farm-to-school DC team developing right now.

Prose Row to Hoe: Help some of the many food and farm non-profits in DC with their advocacy and communications efforts: i.e. National Family Farm Coalition, Rural Coalition, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Community Food Security Coalition, National Farmers Union, etc.

Row to Hoe: Go work at one of the amazing nearby farms while getting the MBA. Or volunteer to work at the USDA People's Garden.

Meanwhile, Ali B. reminds us that Reader D could likely find international work, say at NGOs working toward fair trade or to foster sustainable ag practices in Africa and South America. She would point him to Idealist.org, which has both job listings and volunteer opportunities.

What about you guys?

12 Responsesto “Ask the Ethicurean: How do I work to change the food system?”

  1. Diana Foss says:

    Wow, that's me! Except I'm a 44-year-old SAHM with a masters' degree in astronomy, living in San Jose, CA. Currently, I'm enrolled in "Introduction to the Hospitality Industry" at a local community college, a useless class, but a prerequisite for anything further. I still haven't decided whether to go for the full certificate program. My goal with that would be either to work for Bon Apetitit, or to be a farm-to-school person for a school district or hospital.

    I'm also volunteering for a local urban farm project called <a href="http://www.veggielution.org">Veggielution</a>. This project is actually growing very fast, and it may be where I end up. And I'm blogging every day, establishing a body of writing about food and sustainability.

    I've also been reading the Ethicurean for a few years, and six months ago, I was really feeling pretty pathetic, sitting at home reading food blogs, and knowing no actual people who cared about what I care about. But things are better now. I'm fortunate that I don't need a paying job immediately, but I do want one, when I can get it.

  2. addie says:

    What about asking the Farm Animal Welfare people at the HSUS for advice?  Also, look at Righteous Porkchop (just published); this book addresses ways of using such skills as yours for bettering animals' lives on the farms.  best of luck, D.

  3. Jackie says:

    We small farmers really need more animal processing plants (check out mobile processing facilities) and someone to really tackle the whole local food distribution logistical nightmare.    Pretty please?

  4. Eric Reuter says:

    I've been working on developing  a column for our blog about business opportunities in local ag for non-farmers. Here's a quick summary of ideas we've had:

    1) Start a local/m0bile meat processing business. It's desperately needed just about everywhere and you would get plenty of business. Be as flexible as possible, hiring someone(s) who can handle poultry, hogs, beef, goats, lamb, etc... with ability to handle cultural requests.

    2) Start a local produce collection/distribution business. Many larger institutions like hospitals, schools, and corporations are starting to show serious interest in sourcing locally, but need a steadier and larger supply of produce than individual small farms can handle. These customers can't deal with me pulling up to the back door in a pickup truck; they need real deliveries. There's a huge niche for someone to run a locally-oriented food service business that buys from small farmers at whatever scale they have, collates those products, and delivers them to instituations in useable scales. Experience in systems/web would be beneficial here because an online inventory/ordering system would be quite effective in managing the needs of producers and large customers.

    3) Start a similar supply-network business but for animal feed. Here in central Missouri, I know multiple organic producers who personally drive to Kansas to truck back organic grain for their animals because they can't get it here. At a smaller scale, homesteads and small farms simply can't get organic or wholesome animal feeds because none are available in the region. Someone who went into business collected and selling such feeds and supplies in an area desperate for them might do well. Might not, but the demand is definitely there.

    (4) Maybe work to develop a product/demand database on which customers and producers could each list what they want? Right now one of the problems organics face is that it's hard to quantify demand. People who can't find organic grain/feed for their personal or small farm animals are going to have to buy conventional, but the market never knows that they would have bought organic if it were available. If you could set up some form of online demand center, where I could log in and say "I would buy $x organic grain/feed/seed this year if anyone had it", you could really start to quantify the demand and provide a market incentive for growers to switch or increase their production to meet it.

    Think Craigslist for farmers. Not sure what the business model would be, but the value would be huge, and you might even collect the kind of data that would help lobby the political establishment for more support for organics, given the latent demand you'd demonstrate.

  5. Drat, Jackie beat me to the punch. :) I was going to say the same thing. Small farmers need processing capacity to get food to fork. Slaughterhouses, butcher shops, smokehouses, locker freezer space, etc. There is a big demand for this and diminishing supply. A big thing Reader D could do is learn all about HACCP/PR, SSOP and how to setup and run small processing facilities and then help to get them going on small farms as well as coops.

  6. Andrew says:

    Fantastic post and responses.

    I see two routes - both important and valid, but one may appeal to some more than others.  Changing your own practices and changing the practices of others.  I certainly believe that the start of societal change is in individual action and it can be a long road to get to the kind of sustainable practices you want.  I've been working at it for years.  All the great responses and suggestions already posted I'd put into the category of changing the actions of others.  While they are more detailed than my ideas, I want to make the point that you don't have to be "in the industry" to affect it.  I work at a university/hospital and am currently working to get a CSA pickup site on campus.  Advocacy in your personal sphere of influence - friends, co-workers, etc can be a powerful way to create change.

  7. Christina Viering says:

    Worthwhile career change, keep up the good work!

  8. I feel a great way to adjust the demand of food to more efficient use of resources and helping the planet and people is to go raw! and have more locally grown superfoods, fruits and vegetables. what do people think here about that?

  9. One of the reasons for cooking foods is it makes it so they are more digestible and you get more of the nutrients from the same pound of a food. If everyone ate everything raw we would have to produce more food, consuming more energy, time and land to produce that food. I love eating salads, crunching on a carrot, a fresh apple, etc but it is important to understand the consequences of promoting an idea of "eat raw". It is not a more efficient use of resources. By the way, we don't need to save the planet. It isn't endangered. It will be here long after we're gone. We're but a blip in the time-line. :)

  10. Jeremy says:

    As a fellow Vermonter, I applaud you on your great blog. I really enjoy the topics you address. I'm curious as to what you think about fast food and the obesity epidemic that it's causing (especially with children). Any thoughts on how to change that system specifically?
     
    This summer I'm working as an intern for a non-profit called Corporate Accountability International. It wages campaigns against big corporations that take advantage of natural resources and damage public health. Having been around for 30 years, it's changed nuclear weapons policies, treaties with the World Bank, challenged Big Tobacco, and started some great new initiatives like Think Outside the Bottle (against privatization and over mining of water).
     
    The "Value (the) Meal" campaign is one of the best though. I think you'd dig it. It talks about many of the issues you're concerned with - sustainability, healthy eating, curbing exploitation, etc. (here's the link in case you're interested, just be sure to paste it in your browser http://stopcorporateabuse.org/category/sitecategories/food ). It's a great way to be active and organized. But either way I'll definitely continue reading!
     
    All the best,
    Jeremy
     

  11. don says:

    Hi,

    I agree with Andrew -- on his point about changing your own practices as well as those of others.

    As an ordinary consumer, I know that I've changed my eating habits by passing by the snack aisle at the grocer and going to the fruit section more often. For instance, now I eat sliced apples and peanut butter for snack at night while reading or TV-watching -- rather than chomping on packaged salty or sweet snacks. You know -- pretzels, chips, etc.

    And I am also educating myself more about eating natural foods.  I mean, I rarely knew what kinds of vitamins or minerals were in foods. Take the apples example. I knew the old saying about them keeping the doctor away, but I didn't know that they had more antioxidants in them than a huge dose of Vitamin C.

    I guess my point here is that if we make small changes on an individual basis...that has a lot of power. And educating ourselves about what we eat can lead to even greater changes. After all, if everybody started buying more apples and less processed food, food companies would start to respond to that switch in demand and come up with healthier fare.

    By the way, in case anyone's interested, I read that article on a site called Nutrilegacy.com. Here's the link if anybody wants to read about apple therapy. LOL:  http://www.nutralegacy.com/blog/general-healthcare/interesting-apple-nutrition-facts/#more-3984

  12. shewrites says:

    I saw huge changes in the industrial food system since I graduated in the late 1980s. I was educated to work in corporate food manufacturing, but as I watched food corporations achieve overwhelming success,  I  likewise witnessed the effects on American health. The ethics piece was so obviously missing.  Systems engineers are in demand, even in the  food sector, so if you want to make a difference while making a living, research the food companies that you admire and apply for jobs with those orgs. The smaller companies, under $100 million in annual rev can afford to pay your professional salary.  Using your skills to help ethical companies succeed is the best way to change the system, by showing that success can be measured by more than profit alone.