Reflections on the TEDxManhattan: 'Changing the Way we Eat' conference

TEDx Manhattan 2011

Photo courtesy of TEDxManhattan Flickr

Organized by The Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food and Farming, the brochure described TEDxManhattan: “Changing the Way we Eat” as “an awe-inspiring, all day TEDx event focused on sustainable food and farming.” I was in awe to be able to attend the event in NYC on Feb. 12.

As we settled down into our seats from the flurry of business card exchanges and 30-second elevator pitches, I took out my notebook and started taking notes. Before the speakers began, I was nervous they would preach to the choir – reiterating those facts that pulled me into the food world to begin with: “It takes 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce one calorie of food” or “1.5 billion people are overweight and 1 billion people are starving,” or “Americans throw away more than 40 percent of the food they produce.” (Thank you PBS, WHO and the EPA for verifying those facts.)

During the course of the presentations from the diverse group of food advocates, farmers, food policy experts, and food lovers, I was reminded of those facts. But I also learned new information – the new information thus giving this member of the food choir new songs to sing.

You can see the entire webcast of the full three sessions until Feb. 26, so I will not summarize the entire event, but I will share what I found of interest. (Here is the first session, the second and the third.)

For those of you who watched the livestream at home, or at one of the viewing parties (perhaps hosted by Slow Food Huron Valley) the beginning of each of the three sessions started with a speaker from a TED conference delivered elsewhere. For those of us in the NYC audience we were watching a TED video on the screen along with people at home.

Carolyn Steel was the first to these TED talks and hers was entitled "How food shapes our cities." I was enamored the moment she noted Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent as the beginning of agriculture 10,000 years ago (I used to teach this fact to sixth graders in Washington, D.C.). Interspersed between her maps of Rome and London, she made several comments that have struck with me: “One-third of the annual global grain crop is fed to animals rather than us human animals” and “it takes ten times more grain to feed us via an animal than just to feed us from the grain” and “80 percent of food transport is controlled by five companies.”

Here is her talk if you are curious.

Cheryl Rogowski, a second generation farmer, told us, “Because I share my own seed I could be an outlaw. How can we let that go on?”

Karen Hudson, an outspoken advocate against CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in her home state of Illinois, illustrated the power of grassroots organization with her aerial photographs showing an 83-acre 47 million-gallon lagoon (aka lake) of animal waste outside the CAFO buildings. Hudson founded F.A.R.M. (Families Against Rural Messes) and their motto is, “Illinois – Land of Stinkin.”

Ken Cook, of the Environmental Working Group, gave a rallying cry for citizen activism with his Farm Bill breakdown. “The Farm Bill is a food bill,” and “Twenty-two Congressional districts receive half of all food subsidies,” and “40 percent of our corn crop is going to produce 4 percent of our fuel.” The next Farm Bill is slated for 2012; now is the time to call your Congressman.

Every nine minutes, a new perspective came to the podium: “Vote with your fork” (Josh Veirtel, Slow Food USA President), “if we are going to solve the health care problem we are going to have to solve the food problem” (Michael Conard, Columbia University), and “when we hand over these problems to specialists that is when we get into trouble” (Britta Riley, Windowfarms.org).

Every nine minutes a new story came to the podium: Elizabeth U on social finance, Dr. Melony Samuels on her anti-hunger project in Brooklyn, Dr. William Li on the role of nutrition and angiogenesis and Professor Frederick Kaufman’s report of the coalition striving to come up with a sustainability index for the 150,000 items at Walmart.

Curt Ellis, co-creator of the movie King Corn, pitched his program FoodCorps – an AmeriCorps program to build Farm to School programs. He also shared startling statistics I had not heard before: “We have more people living in prisons in America today than we have left to make a living as farmers” and “Military leaders call [our obesity epidemic] a crisis of national security; already 27 percent of young men and women in America wouldn’t qualify for military service because they are too fat to fight.” Michigan is one of the inaugural states where you can apply for the FoodCorps program, courtesy of their partnership with C.S. Mott at MSU. Click here if you are interested in applying.

We learned about vegetables growing in the Bronx, rural food deserts in Iowa, and Blue Hill at Stone Barns Chef Dan Barber’s love affair with a Spanish fish (see below).

Being there in person was exhilarating, from Friday night drinks to the end of the conference on Saturday. The attendees ranged in age (voice cracking to silver hair), geography (Italy to Berkeley), and vocation (farmers (both of the meat and veggie variety), food centric filmmakers, doctors, farm-to-school experts, bakers, academics, chefs, restaurateurs, social justice advocates, horticulturists, writers, etc).

My choice to (mostly) eat with the seasons has spilled over to a greater appreciation to living with the seasons. Wintertime is a time of education, of reflection, of recharging, of planning before the abundance of spring bursts forth and hands dive into dirt. The TEDxManhattan was more than I could have hoped for – in all of those categories.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.