Jonathan J. Halperin
Jonathan J. Halperin
Designing Our Future
Strategy. Partnership. Communication.

The American Table: James Beard to 7-Eleven

From the Beard Foundation 2013 conference-planning meeting – the focus this year will be ‘appetite’ – to the screening last week at the Ford Foundation of A Place at the Table, the importance of food as central to a sustainable future is becoming ever clearer.

Ford Foundation Presentation of A Place at the Table

This trend reminds me a bit of my early years running a company in the then Soviet Union where we went in a very short few years from answering quizzical questions about what exactly are you doing (strategic market research in a non-market economy), to being joined by dozens and soon hundreds of the world’s largest companies as they scrambled (and often stumbled) to find a niche in Moscow. The notion of critical mass is a relevant to social change as it is to physics.

That 7-Eleven has shifted its nationwide purchasing to now include (take a seat if you shock easily!) fresh produce sends a signal that change is indeed afoot. Fear not, the Big Gulp won’t be replaced anytime soon by Brussels sprouts. But as political revolutions don’t come about through voting, so too the sustainability revolution is upon us now and there wont be a signal conference or press release to announce its arrival. The work, however, that has been done steadily and with increasing depth and sophistication by folks like those at The Sustainable Food Lab has made a world of difference. At its summits, SFL brings together players all along the global food value chain, from local producers and farmers to global retailers and local purveyors. I will be presenting the results of recent work for Unilever at this year’s conference, grappling with the question of monitoring sustainable agriculture at a landscape- rather than farm-level.

As the push for new ways of growing food gains ground, so too the search for cures to the obesity epidemic continue. Michelle Obama’s work with the White House garden has inspired thousands of local efforts to bring nutritious food into schools. In one small example of this, and with the help of The James Beard Foundation, I have connected celebrated Chef Todd Grey and his partner Ellen Kassoff from Equinox with Mundo Verde – a DC Public Charter School on whose board I sit. And the upcoming Green Schools National Conference this winter has a renewed focus as well on food and well-being.

All of which makes it all the more peculiar to hear the CEO and founder of Whole Foods speak in an eerily detached manner about how the government’s health care reform plan recently upheld by the Supreme Court is actually more like fascism than socialism. Having lived in the Soviet Union for quite some time, and looking ahead to International Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th, I take a rather dim view of such incendiary comparisons.

I’ve no gripe with strong language, and appreciated the refreshing candor of Representative Marcia Fudge at a recent Tavis Smiley forum at George Washington University (link to CSPAN Video Library).  As part of a rich and provocative panel Smiley convened – Jonathan Kozol, Cornell West, John Graham, Newt Gingrich and others – the new head of the Congressional Black Caucus gave voice to what many of us have thought for some time. Representative Fudge shared that in shepherding legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives these days she has to deal with members who are “evil, nuts and mean.“ Such is the paralyzing result of the radicalization of the Republican Party that now eschews achievement and prioritizes obstruction.

Tavis Smiley forum

But at The Ford Foundation screening of A Place at The Table, I was uplifted and again inspired by this compelling movie even though I know well its powerful story of how 50,000,000 Americans struggle to find food every day. I chatted again with Barbie Izquierdo and commended her for her grace and candor in responding to a tough, personal question from the audience.

Marianna Chilton, Director of the Center for Hunger Free Communities at Drexel University, is also featured in the film and participated on the Tavis Smiley panel at which she effectively challenged many of Speaker Gingrich’s smoothly spoken untruths. Beyond that, however, she quietly and movingly reminded everyone that there are many people like Barbie Izquierdo in her Witnesses to Hunger organization – people experiencing not only hunger but also poverty every single day. And she emphasized these people have a kind of innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that bespeaks a resilience and determination few of us posses.

Ponder that for a moment. The power of entrepreneurial people – 50,000,000 strong – to change our future. More soon on and the Coming soon to a 7-Eleven near you?

Jonathan reflects the best of social entrepreneurship. He leads with his heart but has connected with the great mass of political power and will in society.

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