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Guest blog – Brooklyn Food Conference: Why we’re “fast, cheap and easy” — and how we’re changing that

Written by our friend and HOMEGROWNer Meredith Modzelewski – thank you, Meredith!

What a great way to spend a Saturday indoors. Looking forward to the Brooklyn Food Conference, I expected inspiration, excitement, and a healthy amount of interest from New Yorkers, but what I couldn’t predict was the scale on which I’d witness it.

A fantastic first joint effort from the Caribbean Women’s Health Association, World Hunger Year, the Park Slope Food Co-op, Brooklyn Rescue Mission, and Brooklyn’s Bounty, the Brooklyn Food Conference at John Jay High School in Park Slope was a smashing success. Officials from the Conference said a total of over 3,000 people were in attendance, and I know from talking to attendees that it wasn’t just New Yorkers who came. Food justice advocates, sustainable agriculture activists, food coop and CSA members, home gardeners, nutrition educators, and curious neighbors came to the Conference from all over the region, country, and, in a few cases, the world!

The opening session began with keynote speaker Dan Barber (full text here) of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and this year’s James Beard Award winner for best chef, who told a tale of two fish. He shared the irony of a “sustainable aquaculture” farm where he used to order fish for his restaurants. When he learned that what makes them “sustainable” is that they’re fed chicken scraps due to “overproduction” of chicken in the US, he took them off the menu immediately. In contrast, the other fish in question was at a self-sustaining fish farm in Spain, where the fish don’t need to be fed, as the system sustains itself on its own, and success is measured by the health of its predators — in this case, flamingos. This fish farm is practically a bird sanctuary! Barber concluded with the point that we aren’t healthy unless our food is healthy: the end of the chain is connected to the beginning.

Raj Patel spoke next (full text here). The author of “Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System,” Patel discussed the possible origins of the H1N1 virus (otherwise known as “swine flu”) from the Smithfield CAFO in Mexico, and how NAFTA helped pave the way. Patel also provided a rousing comparison of the World Bank, his former employer, to a scene in the Terry Gilliam film “Time Bandits” where the John-Cleese-as-Robin-Hood character gives away Napoleon’s riches to poor people, only to have thugs punch them in the face as soon as they’ve accepted the spoils. An important point, too, was his explanation that Barack Obama is not simply a pizza deliveryman of change, bringing a steaming box of change to our doorsteps; we’ve got to take that inspiration and make it our own, the driving force behind creating our own change with our own two hands.

LaDonna Redmond, CEO of the Institute for Community Resource Development in Chicago, shared with us her personal epiphany about how she got into sustainable food and food justice — living in Chicago and faced with a new son with many food allergies, she realized she couldn’t find the food she needed in her own neighborhood, filled with convenience stores selling cigarettes, potato chips, and beer, and began working to educate herself on allergies, pesticides, organics, sustainability and nutrition. Explaining how “our food system has never been just,” Redmond urged the audience to ensure agricultural jobs are included in the “green jobs” zeitgeist that Van Jones has begun with the Obama administration and the rest of the country.

Next came the workshops. In speaking with others about the Conference, I found we shared the sentiment that there were simply too many workshops [PDF] to cram into one day. We all wanted two or more days to cover all the territory we wished we could! Instead, we all had to choose carefully but with regret that we couldn’t possibly hear everything that we considered important.

First, I headed to “Climate Change and the World’s Food Supply,” featuring a panel of folks from Brighter Green, Just Food, and Oxfam Action Corps NYC. Mia MacDonald, director of Brighter Green, shared some sobering facts: an estimated one-third of human-caused greenhouse gases (GHGs) are the result of agriculture and changes in land use related to to crops and farm animals. Livestock operations emit one-fifth of the global total of man-made GHGs — that’s more than the total effect of the world’s railroad, cars, and other transportation systems’ effects combined. The growth of these GHGs is directly related to the globalization of the “Western diet” heavy on meats; meat production has tripled globally in the last 25 years.

But there’s hope! If everyone in the US converted 10% of their diet to organic, we could capture 6.5 billion pounds of carbon every year. If one person went vegetarian just one day a week, the GHGs prevented from entering the environment would be equal to that emitted from driving a car 1,163 miles per year.

I left halfway through this workshop to find the “Organizing in the Obama Era: Digital Activism” session. Leslie Hatfield, who writes for Eat Well Guide’s Green Fork blog, among others, led the panel, which consisted of Winton Wedderburn, CUNY student and head of social media for the Brooklyn Food Conference; Natasha Chart of Change.org’s Sustainable Food blog, and Naomi Starkman, whose writing has been featured on Huffington Post and is a regular contributor to the blog Civil Eats. When I arrived, the topic was trending toward how to use digital and social media to your advantage as an organizer around sustainable food issues. Even though new media is coming on fast, we can’t abandon old media just yet, as tons of people in this country and worldwide still use newspapers and television to become informed about the world around them.

A question from the audience rang particularly true with me: with all the blogs, Twitter feeds, news articles, podcasts and videos to consume online, how do you manage your time to stay organized, focused and effective? Starkman answered, only half-joking: “I don’t sleep.” Chart said, effectively, “Let it go.” You can’t possibly read every blog or see every tweet you want to, so stop trying to and don’t feel guilty about missing them.

Next up, I attended “Our Sustainable Restaurants: A Roundtable of NYC Chefs,” led by Leonard Lopate of WNYC public radio. On the panel were Dan Barber; Peter Hoffman of Savoy and Back Forty; Bill Telepan of Telepan; David Shea of Applewood; and John Tucker of Rose Water. A very popular panel, the discussion ranged from the chef as instrumental in changing food attitudes to seed sharing, and even tackling the accusation that choosing to eat sustainably is an elitist idea. Barber and Shea explained how chefs, first and foremost, care about taste — and food grown sustainably and responsibly, especially locally, simply tastes better. The chefs agreed that sustainable food’s higher prices, which could be seen as elitism by some, is really just a reflection of the true cost of food; Americans have been accustomed to artificially cheap food for far too long and the higher prices are a correction. As one of them noted, many consumers are learning to say, “Food is where I want to spend my money — on what I put into my body, not what I hang off of it.”

My favorite verbal nugget of the session? Telepan quipped, “If we are what we eat, then we’re fast, cheap, and easy.”

Later, I moved on to “Passing the Hoe: New Farmers Share Stories and Experiences.” This was a wildly popular session, with the hot, stuffy classroom packed to the gills by the time the young farmers started speaking, and the audience continued to grow as the workshop went on. Michael Grady Robertson, agriculture director at Queens County Farm Museum; Severine von Tscharner Fleming, director of the Greenhorns Project; Sarah Franklin of World Hunger Year and former farmer intern; and Kaycee Wimbish of Awesome Farm discussed the trials and tribulations — but also the bounties and benefits — of being a young farmer today. Some had more growing experience than others before starting out on their own, but all of them spoke of the importance of having an established network of friends, colleagues and connectors, both in the country and in the city, to help their farming efforts.

Lots of great revelations and first-hand knowledge at this session. Wimbish and her farming partner were vegetarians until they decided to start raising animals for meat and dairy. Robertson, originally from Kansas, was extremely depressed after working in a tiny office in Austin with oppressive neon overhead lighting during the dot-com boom. When he spoke to his boss about it, he handed Robertson “a book about depression written by children of celebrities.” He said no thanks to all that and decided to start by working on a farm in Texas, then WWOOFed for 3 years at different farms in the US and Europe.

Franklin started out in public health, studying nutrition, and realized slowly that “food science” as she was learning about it was “a myth.” She spent time in South Africa where she saw people displaced from apartheid taken from their arable land and eating bad food, but she also saw giant community urban gardens and farms. She apprenticed at several farms but is now on hiatus, working at World Hunger Year. Von Tscharner Fleming got her start through college activism and studied agroecology at Berkeley. She, too, took part in WWOOF and other biodynamic farm apprenticeships. For the past few years, she’s traveled around the country filming and interviewing other young farmers for her documentary, “The Greenhorns.”

Robertson, in response to a high school senior who had looked in vain for a strong sustainable agriculture program at a big university, said, “I’d rather learn from a farmer than a professor.” Wimbish said, “People don’t see agriculture as a white-collar job, but youthful energy is behind the jump in sustainable farming. It’s something you can do with your hands and with your mind.” She added, “Farming is a craft. You do all the learning you can do, but after a certain point, you’re simply in charge. There is no book.”

Von Tscharner Fleming emphasized that our new presidential administration is part of a true shift in consciousness; “It’s not just lip service. Kathleen Merrigan [the new deputy secretary of the USDA] is one of us! She’s a farmer!”

To cap off the day, Brooklyn Food Conference coordinator Nancy Romer thanked everyone, and announced that the momentum would keep going through a series of neighborhood meetings in Brooklyn following the Conference to get members of the community to discuss and define what needs to happen to next and what kind of food coalition we’d like to see.

Anna Lappé, daughter of food activist Frances Moore Lappé and activist and author in her own right, sent us forth with the question, “Where is the outrage?” As a pregnant woman, none of the guides she’s read to help inform her about what to eat while pregnant talked about the reasons behind avoiding fish (what’s mercury doing in our food?).

As she said, changing the food system is about making the connections visible to everyone, to show that we are truly part of a system. I think the Brooklyn Food Conference did a great job at doing just that, and I hope there will be more gatherings like it all over the country in the months and years ahead.

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5 Responses to “Guest blog – Brooklyn Food Conference: Why we’re “fast, cheap and easy” — and how we’re changing that”

  1. This was a fascinating piece – I felt like I was there at the conference! It sounds like an incredibly inspiring event. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Mom Blogs – Blogs for Moms…

  3. […] can read Meredith’s full post at Homegrown.org. Tags: bill telepan brooklyn brooklyn food […]

  4. EVERYONE shared the sentiment that one day was not enough.

    I hope, that next year, when we come back to learn what everyone did with the information they gathered, the event is extended.

    Would you happen to know if that quote was originated by Telepan? I remember reading it somewhere but I can’t remember if I read it in the NYTimes Magazine or online.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. […] from a hardware store and your – or your neighbors’ – recycling bin. We met Robert at the Brooklyn Food Conference a few weeks ago, and his enthusiam for sharing his findings was intoxicating. He is determined to […]

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