Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A day of inspiration

This past weekend I attended the 2012 TEDxManhattan conference. The day's theme was "Changing the way we eat" and, like traditional TED talks, the audience was inspired and entertained by a series of captivating speakers.

Some of the recurrent themes that came up in the 17 talks were sustainable farming, reducing meat consumption, the importance of taste, transparency in food labeling, and the power of what even small-scale changes to our individual lives or surrounding communities and classrooms can have on the food system and America's culture of food.

The most dynamic speaker was a teacher from the Bronx, who spoke a-mile-a-minute, had 100s of photos he flipped through, and who had so much passion for his students, classroom and Bronx Green Machine project that he made me tear up and be reminded again that there are amazing teachers out there. The most humble and endearing was a gentleman who started a community gardening program for veterans that is literally saving some of their lives. Several innovators discussed their physical inventions (e.g., to keep food fresh) and online tools (e.g., to find out where your food comes from or to find ways to end hunger with fresh produce), while other speakers exposed the truths behind our meat, poultry and fish industries, urging us to try out the "Meatless Monday" campaign.

A poignant moment: When one speaker asked the audience to close their eyes and envision the best-tasting tomato they had this past year. Then he polled the audience to see how many people had bought that tomato from a supermarket. Not one of the 350+ audience members rose their hand. This is because, he said, produce is produced for travel these days, not taste. We have the most efficient produce distribution system, in that it quickly dispenses thousands of pounds of fresh produce to thousands of stores across the country from just several agricultural regions in the U.S., and yet it is so paradoxically insufficient, because these greens and beans and tomatoes travel hundreds or thousands of miles to reach our plates, when they could come from local farms (or even better, our own backyards). His solution: investing in greenhouse infrastructure so that farms can distribute fresh produce to their local supermarket, thus eliminating unnecessary travel time and distance.

This "taste" issue is a tricky one, because it gets at the heart of our food culture that has muddled through changes to our industrial system, the introduction of chemicals to our land, the depletion of our free time to actually cook meals, the education we receive that does not teach our children the difference between an eggplant and a potato and the imposing advertisements for and excessive availability of packaged and processed foods, and has created a public largely alienated from the food we put into our bodies and feed our families.

So there is a movement afoot. People see deception in our food system. People feel the difference when they eat real, fresh food. And there are people out there actually doing something about it.

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