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

Creating a 21st Century Food System

As we recover from our annual Halloween sugar binge, worth $2.4 billion to the candy industry, rumblings of change can be heard from every corner of the food system. In Washington, a bill to reduce sugar consumption has been introduced by Rosa DeLauro (The Sweet Act) and Congressman Tim Ryan has written to the FDA requesting that the sugar content of food be shown on labels in easily understandable teaspoons rather than in grams (a complex measure of mass).

And Food Policy Action (with help from Tom Colicchio and others) just successfully tested its hypothesis that food can be a voting issue. It’s first target, Representative Steve Southerland will not be returning to Capitol Hill from Florida to continue his vilification of hungry citizens struggling to find their next meal.

In Berkeley, voters approved a tax on soda. And while the significance of this can be brushed off (after all, what would you expect from Berkeley?), the beverage industry thought the threat was significant enough to spend $2.4 million to squash this effort. Across the bay, where a similar effort fell just shot, award-winning pastry chef Emily Luchetti has launched a campaign to urge us to think before we eat. Her #DessertWorthy efforts ask us all to enjoy a real dessert – and to revel in the splendor of such magnificent treats -- rather than using up our quotient of sugar on cheap junk snacks.

The personal challenges and public consequences of our sugar-rich/nutrient poor diets is painfully documented in the recent documentary, FedUp, by Laurie David and Katie Couric and was the platform for our discussion with Rob Lustig and others at the 2014 James Beard Foundation conference on health and food. And sugar will likely be a topic of lively conversation this week as well at The New York Times conference (Food for Tomorrow: Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World.) at Stone Barns.

Food for Tomorrow Conference
Food: personal choices with public consequences

The market is also sending signals of change. Coca-Cola saw earnings drop 14% last quarter while McDonald’s saw US profits fall a whopping 30%. For investors in this shifting context, are past returns still a good indicator of future earnings? For how long can soda manufacturers push out into the future the costs of rising rates of Type II Diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and fatty liver disease? When will they be asked to pay their fair share for the huge health costs they are knowingly passing on to future generations? While recent pledges to make small reductions in added sugar are surely welcome, systemic change is painful and takes time. And no CEO wants to come as close to being fired as Indra Nooyi did a few years at when she tried to shift Pepsi into a focus on healthier products.

Former food industry executives have seen the handwriting on the wall as well. Mike Roberts left McDonald’s as its President and CEO to found LYFE, a chain of local kitchens offering locally- and sustainably-created meals. Doug Rouch, former President of Trader Joe’s has created The Daily Table to bring to market perfectly good produce items that would otherwise be plowed under because they don’t meet industry-created consumer expectations of uniformly sized, shaped, and colored fruits and vegetables.

While The Daily Table focuses on the massive problem of waste in the food system, Tim Harlan from Tulane and Michel Nischan from Wholesome Wave are developing new ways to work with hospitals, doctors and insurance companies. The program at Tulane is pioneering innovative ways to address the challenge that medical schools barely teach their students anything about nutrition. And the nexus of hunger, nutrition, and fresh produce is the target for Wholesome Wave’s project that enables doctors to write prescriptions for fresh produce that low-income customers can use at farmer’s market.

These novel projects are pathways to change critical elements in the food system, and they abide the succinct wisdom captured in Michael Pollan’s admonition to “eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” And they challenge the stunning normalcy of hospital meals, cafeterias, and vending machines that enable patients to consumer the very products that made them patients in the first place. As Mark Bittman observed in conversation with Mitchell Davis at The Beard Conference, much of what we consider processed “food” might better fit the definition of poison than the definition of nutritious.

What we grow and how we grow it, where we sell it and how we distribute it, and to what extent we process it are all at the heart of myriad initiatives aimed at instilling better eating habits among the young. From Michelle Obama’s garden and Let’s Move to Cindy Gershen’s ag certified school garden in Concord, CA, to The Vetri Foundation’s work in Philadelphia for bringing healthy, family-style dining into school lunch rooms, and Mundo Verde’s construction of a school and community teaching kitchen in Washington, DC, it is clear that what and how we eat is changing – and fast.

While single issue votes on sugar don’t tell us much about what might happen in 2019 when the comprehensive national farm bill comes back up for re-authorization, they do signal a changing landscape in the American food system. The traditional deal between representatives from rural, Midwestern districts and Northeastern urban districts that has been critical for passage of this bill has unraveled. And that creates an opportunity for a national food policy, as called for in this week’s Washington Post opinion piece by

At a global scale, powerful currents in knowledge management, geographic information systems, and deeper understandings of resource economics herald a level of collaboration around monitoring the health of ecosystems that has been the work for years of Molly Jahn and her colleagues – another topic for the Stone Barns discussions this week.

Who Needs to be at the Table?
Who needs to be at the table to create a 21st century food system?

The question all of these initiatives are grappling with, at root, is not just about schools or sugar or nutrition or the farm bill. It is not even just about agricultural yield and the need to feed 9 billion people. The real question is what kind of system do we need in the 21st century?

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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