Athens to Atlanta: A Weekend of All Things Food (Part I)
Since our move to Atlanta last August, I continue to be amazed by just how ‘foodie’ this city is and I love it. Many restaurants here embrace the idea of serving local food, and each week, I meet more people who believe in the mission of feeding our population good, fresh, nutritious food. This weekend I had the opportunity to take advantage of some incredible, uniquely Georgia, food opportunities, that allowed me to learn more about the food policy world, being a conscious eater, and even work in the same kitchen as some of this year’s James Beard nominees.
On Saturday morning I drove from Atlanta to Athens to participate in the 13th annual Georgia Organics Conference. While I couldn’t attend the farm tours on Friday afternoon, the nerdy teacher in me was eager to participate in the Educational Sessions on Saturday. Georgia Organics does an incredible job organizing this huge event. With eight sessions to choose from during each of the four time slots, the conference’s offerings were large in number and diversity in choice. Everything from “Bugging Out” (management of pests) to “Small Scale Composting,” to “Rooting the Farmer in Farm to School.”
Every session I attended was informative and led by passionate and incredibly smart people. It’s refreshing to know just how many motivated people are involved in farming and food policy. Since I don’t (yet) own my own farm, I chose sessions in the ‘Food Systems’ and ‘Slow Food Culture’ categories and I thought I’d fill you in a little on what I heard. Definitely a day of inspiring people with insightful (and even hopeful!) thoughts.
Eating for the Future: Led by Anne Palmer, Program Director for Johns Hopkins Center for A Livable Future, this presentation particularly interested me because I lived in Baltimore after college and the connection between food and public health is important to me. Palmer’s discussion gave many staggering statistics about cities’ (especially Baltimore), lack of access to healthy food. We can’t expect our low income populations to eat healthily if there’s nowhere to access good food, right? For example, in southwest Baltimore there are 43 ‘food stores,’ but 76% did not sell fruit and 69% did not sell vegetables. (Both of these statistics include canned fruits and veggies too.) Isn’t that unbelievable? One thing I never thought about was that grocery stores are so big now that they tend to be built in the suburbs. This is fine for a family with a car that can drive to these locations but many people living in cities don’t have the resources to get to these gigantic Wegman’s and Safeways, making them limited to what’s in their neighborhood. Palmer is working with local farmers, trying to get produce into city stores and even city farmers’ markets. Overcoming physical and social barriers that prevent good food from getting to low income populations is her goal.
In Search of a Righteous Porkchop: Nicolette Hahn Niman wrote the 2009 book, The Righteous Porkchop and she spoke at Georgia Organics about her quest to find the righteous pork chop, as well as the history of the meat farming industry in the United States. A lawyer, Niman worked for Bobby Kennedy in his environmental group and investigated pig farms in Missouri and North Carolina, and how they mimicked the model started by the poultry industry in 1920s. Referred to as ‘modern agriculture,’ this system involves antibiotics, hormones, terrible living conditions, and polluted air and water for neighboring populations. Did you know that 70% of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are given to animals, not humans? Many of these large corporations even convinced local legislators not to enforce federal laws through lobbying and bribery. I have a confession: I’m much better about making sure I know where my vegetables come from than my meat or dairy. Nihman was so inspiring and encouraging but also not judging. She talked a lot about how we should all make changes to our diets, but that it should be incremental. Make small changes, such as eating one vegetarian dinner a week, not vowing to entirely wipe out poultry from major meat corporations from your diet.
I did love one of Niman final lines though: “Everything you eat should come from a place you could enjoy visiting.” She and her husband, Bill Niman, own a cattle ranch in northern California that is absolutely beautiful and the animals looked happy and comfortable. Two of the things I loved most about Ms. Niman is that she is a vegetarian, yet believes there is a righteous porkchop and at the conference she brought her 1-year old son, who came to the book signing with her. I love seeing strong women, who are pursuing meaningful careers that also fit with motherhood.
Policy’s Influence on Food Choice and Access: The name of this workshop is pretty self descriptive, but the people on the panel brought a variety of perspectives to the table. Dr. Diane M. Harris and Dr. Joel Kimmons, both from the CDC (Center for Disease Control) discussed the importance of prevention when dealing with chronic diseases, and how much diet can contribute to prevention. Harris mentioned the idea of ‘libertarian paternalism,’ and nudging people in the right direction to make the healthiest choices. Kimmons discussed the CDC’s initiative, for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. The importance of decreasing high caloric foods, increasing physical activity and decreasing obesity obviously make huge long term health benefits for the American population. He mentioned there are many components to the Food Systems Network and we need to change the entire system, not just one component.
Christa Essig, spoke next about creating a food system that benefits all of the systems within the system, including economic, environmental and social. She discussed many different issues involved in getting food to the people who need it but especially talked about just how much buying power large institutions have that feed their employees. For example, Google really took the lead on this idea by only serving healthy, quality food in their cafeteria. Essig also went on to discuss the importance of companies working with farmers to tell their story and get access to the food. Often transportation and time are two of the biggest obstacles for farmers to get their food to different populations.
The final member of this panel, Michel Nischan, President of Wholesome Wave Foundation, spoke about the need to get quality produce into high population, low income areas. The mission of Wholesome Wave is “to encourage and support increased production, availability and access to fresh, healthy and affordable locally grown food for the benefit of all.” I love this idea and I hope to some day bring Nischan’s ideas to Virginia. Nischan was all about the idea of “If you build it, they will come.” He said that we underestimate our low income, urban populations and if you create access and affordability to good produce, they will buy it. He pointed out that many urban populations are first generation immigrant populations who, prior to the U.S., bought most of their food at markets.
A great Q&A session followed this panel and similar to all of my workshops, I was inspired by the passion that the panel leaders as well as those of us in the audience shared for consuming quality food, supporting farmers, and getting more Americans access to the best and most nutritious food. I found the day to be very hopeful, even though we discussed many issues and policies that sometimes seem hopeless.
Can you tell I had an amazing weekend? I’ve already written way more than is ‘blog appropriate’ and I didn’t even get through Saturday. Stay tuned to hear about my final workshop of the day as well as the Slow Food Atlanta Family Dinner with Carlo Petrini at Watershed that I was a volunteer server for last night.