The Freedom to Know

Food Tank Juliette Majot

Chicago Food Tank Summit takes on transparency in the food system and offers suggestions for the Trump-Pence Administration.

By Janice Hoppe

A little more than a week has gone by since a majority of America was blind-sided as Donald Trump was named the next president of the United States. With this new fast-food-loving president-elect, some of the world’s most impact food system leaders are left wondering – and seemingly nervous – about how the new administration will impact food policy moving forward. 

More than 35 different speakers from the food and agriculture field came together Wednesday at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center for the first annual Chicago Food Tank Summit to discuss this topic and more. Only a few times was the election and new administration mentioned, which came as a surprise to Juliette Majot, executive director for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

“For the past I don’t know how long, I’ve been glued to the television news and don’t understand why I didn’t hear them talk about agriculture and food systems,” she said. “Why? I am buffaloed by it and a lack of courage to speak out about where we are finding ourselves in the U.S. 

“It’s not a leap of faith to talk about what we know in science about pesticides,” she continued. “It’s not a leap of faith to talk about what we know about climate change. It’s not a leap of faith to know that agriculture will surpass transportation as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. It will take over the No. 2 spot and do so in the next couple of years.” 

Majot added that divisiveness breeds caution and caution supports the status quo. “We cannot normalize what’s going on,” she said. “We absolutely must place agriculture and food into the context of society and into the context of our political structure.” 

Increasing Transparency

What should the food system look like tomorrow? Majot said, “We have a chance right now – what is it we want to say to the new president-elect?”

One of her suggestions was greater transparency in the food system and improving the consumer’s right to know where their food came from. “Transparency in the Food System” was one of four panel discussions held during the Chicago Food Tank Summit. 

“Why don’t we imagine trade agreements to ensure every country’s right to establish food reserves?” Majot asked. “Encourage improvement in food safety through policy and practice, including food inspection and trade agreements that strengthen greater transparency in the food system.”

Bloomberg News Reporter Shruti Singh moderated a discussion of six panelists: Bruce Friedrich, executive director of The Good Food Institute; Angela Mason, associate vice president of Windy City Harvest; Karen Lehman, director of Fresh Taste; Gene Bauer, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary; Behtash Bahador of the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition Alumni Association; and John Steven Bianucci, director of impact at Iroquois Valley Farms

Food Tank John Steven Bianucci Iroquois Valley FarmsWhen asked what transparency means to them, Bianucci asked, “If I can’t know what’s in my food, what rights do I really have? How free am I?”

In 1986, Farm Sanctuary was founded to investigate and expose cruelty in animal farming. “We encourage people to think about the consequences of their food choices,” Baur said. “People don’t want to support cruelty, but they are supporting animal abuse when they buy animal products produced on these farms. We need to start paying attention and as we do that, the food system can change.” 

He adds that when products are marketed as humane, it is often overselling and overstating. “There is a disconnect now between reality and what the labels suggests,” Bauer added. “Free-range, for example. You think the animals are outdoors grazing and have a good life. Free-range means they have access to the outdoors, which means they could have animals raised by the hundreds or thousands with a little rickety door [to the outdoors] and that can be marketed as free-range.” 

Mason says Windy City Harvest’s goal is to be as transparent as possible in how the crops are grown and distributed. “If you receive a Veggie RX box and are in a low income community, knowing where it came from isn’t as important as having food,” she said. “We have an opportunity to show people what farming looks like, know that fresh produce has flavor and know that they have choices in the foods they are eating.” 

Part of the Chicago Botanic Garden, Windy City Harvest focuses on demystifying food and teaching people how to cook again. “We don’t have home economics really anymore, this is an opportunity for people to work with fresh, local produce,” Mason added. 

Accomplishments in Transparency

Lehman says organics has been a huge win in the food system. “We can go buy organic and know that certain things happen,” she added. “What we see as transparency takes a lot of work. I know if I’m getting organic that someone has certified it and eyes are on that system, and I’m willing to pay more for that. And I get to choose whether to do that.” 

Bauer says people are creatures of habit and develop patterns of behavior. As more people buy organic, that’s a step in the right direction, he adds. 

“Farmers markets are expanding and people want to be more connected to the source of the food,” Bauer said. “There is a vertical indoor garden in downtown Philadelphia in an old warehouse that in 36 square feet of space grows as much as an acre of space. There is a school in the Bronx that is teaching how to grow [produce]. They are putting rooftop gardens in the Hamptons. It gives hope, opportunity and health.”

Food Tank partners with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition to educate people about these food system problems and the environmental impacts of food. The center developed an inverted pyramid that shows the food pyramid on one side and the environmental impacts on the other.

Food Tank Karen Lehman of Fresh Taste“Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition has created this food sustainability index that is a research instrument to measure how communities and food systems are doing in terms of reaching food sustainable goals,” Bahador said. “That’s rolled out in 25 countries and we hear really great stories and narratives on what people are doing. We want to have more data.”

To get more information out to people, Bahador said there is a need for more journalists in the food sustainability space producing good, informative pieces. The center also wants to bring younger generations into the conversation and does so by encouraging students and researchers to submit ideas to BCFN YES! The international competition offers a platform for researchers and students to submit innovative, high-impact projects based on food, nutrition, health and sustainability.

“Transparency is very much in line with what BCFN does – sharing information,” Bahador said. “We take the research and make sure it’s accessible to individuals and make policy recommendations based on the research.” 

At this point, no one is certain how the food system will be impacted by the incoming administration. Panelists are hopeful it will continue on a good path, but are prepared to lobby for the food system to ensure what is right continues to be done. In a later panel, Jim Slama, founder and president of FamilyFarmed said, “We need to keep Michelle Obama’s garden in the White House. We can’t take this lying down. We have to step up as a movement and have to say no if they try to roll back all the positive things that have happened during the Obama Administration.”  

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