Set the scene…an open and industrial event space called Prime Produce (a guild for social good with upcoming plans to include a café, coworking space and small rooftop farm!) filled with not only a creative seating solution of milk crates but also the buzzing of eager and excited attendees ready to listen to a panel discussion on how to lead a socially conscious lifestyle through food. Not to mention the tasty treats of coconut water, yogurt and kefir provided by sponsors Harmless Harvest and Five Acre Farms (score!).
Attendees took to their crates as the panel moderator and CEO of Be Social Change, Marcos Salazar, began to introduce the 5 panelists Taylor Lanzet (Director of Supply and Sourcing at Dig Inn), Wen-Jay Ying (Founder and Director of Local Roots NYC), Richard McCarthy (Executive Director at Slow Food USA), Andrew Ive (Managing Director of Food-X) and Jean de Barrau (Director of Sustainable Agriculture at Danone). Seeing as it was my first Be Social Change event, I didn’t know what to expect, however was impressed by not only the inviting environment but also the wide range of experience sitting in front of us. It’s hard to predict what the focus of a “sustainability” conversation will be, even if the theme is the future of food, so I was pleased to listen to and learn about the restaurant side of things, the local produce market side of things, the “big food” side of things and of course, the policy and business side of things.
After introductions, what topic best to start a discussion off with but ‘noticeable trends.’ One trend in particular that stood out to me as extremely important and very relatable was that consumers are requiring a higher quality of food (power to the people!). This in turn is changing how larger companies are thinking because they are losing consumers. It makes perfect sense! People want transparency in order to know where their food is coming from, how it is grown or tended to and really, anything else that goes into it! Why hold anything back? The more information and communication, the better. Building this trust between retailer or restaurant and consumer is of utmost importance when pushing forward with the idea of value-based buying or buying product in line with your morals. Another important trend discussed was that of zero waste. Taylor talked about how Dig Inn visits farms and sources underutilized vegetables while Wen-Jay talked about access to helpful tips and recipes including how to use kale from stem to leaf or even that there is a use for shrimp shells! Of course, there is also the trend of ‘food as medicine’ for which I am a huge advocate. Who wouldn’t choose a delicious cup of turmeric-filled golden milk over a dose of ibuprofen?!
When talking about relationship building with farms, the issue of trust comes back into play. How is a high level of trust achievable? It was pretty much a common consensus amongst the panelists that what it comes down to is constant communication. Lucky for us, email, cell phones and social media make this habit much more manageable. Of course, in order to perpetuate transparency, the farmers have to be willing and comfortable with storytelling in order to share information on their product and farm work. That being said, once this trust is built and the relationship strong, companies are able to share a great deal about their product with the consumer because they know exactly where it comes from. Richard raised the point of another important relationship…the relationship that we are taught to have and end up developing with food. Our relationship with food of course starts at a very young age so the importance of creating a love for the taste of fresh food is very high and can be achieved through the implementation of school gardens.
Last but not least, the panelists were asked to talk about the integration of technology in our food systems and what they predict for the future. Andrew brought up a company that Food-X had invested in whose goal was to sell nearly expired food products through cost variance depending on supply and demand, ultimately ensuring a waste-free business plan. Seems like something worth a try! As for the future, Jean de Barrau raised the question of how we can ensure a legacy and support farms so that they can stay in the family. Similar to the question posed in the design world of how to keep a dying craft alive…we have to acknowledge the value of these systems that we want to uphold and make the decision to support them and integrate them into our every day lives. In the case of the future of our food, we should actively choose to eat regionally and responsibly until it becomes the norm.
When thinking about how to best integrate smaller, sustainable farms into the bigger picture, it only makes sense to look at our brother and sister industries of sustainability and successful business models. I was thrilled to find out through a post panel discussion with Marcus that Be Social Change has plans to unite our sustainable community across the board in an effort to share both successes and failures and talk about next steps and how to move forward in 2018 and beyond!