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Highlights from the Beard Foundation’s Future of Food Conference

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Panelists at the 2015 James Beard Foundation Conference, clockwise from top: 1) Leah Jones and Mike Lee. 2) Monterey School District’s Stephanie Lip. 3) Tulane’s Tim Harlan, MD, in conversation with Duke University’s Gary Bennett, MD. 4) Fortune journalist Beth Kowitt chats with Campbell’s CEO Denise Solomon.

Early on in Day 1 of the 2015 James Beard Foundation Conference (subtitled “Rethinking the Future of Food”), the moderator asked a question that could have served as a thesis statement for discussion that followed: “What’s the future you WANT to create? Can we co-create a meal of the future that we can attain?”

Panelists drawn from all segments of the food industry — physicians, activists, nutritionists, entrepreneurs and CEOs, among others — spent the day answering variations on that question. What follows are some (very selective) highlights.

Chef Bill Telepan, Wellness in the Schools: Convenience was supposed to make everything better, but it brought us cheap + easy food. Today 75 million Americans eat fast food every day. No surprise that obesity rates have quadrupled among 12-19 year-olds. There are immediate health consequences: cardio-vascular issues, diabetes, high cholesterol.

We are addicted to food high in fat, sugar and sodium. Our bodies don’t know how to metabolize real foods. We need to encourage children to engage in healthy habits early in life.

Poverty and obesity are linked. I realized that, as a chef, I have a skill I could use to make a difference.

Wellness in the Schools is now in 75 schools. Education about food is SO important. At schools we have a captive audience. We can change the culture. Little by little, it IS making a difference. One day we will have no need for WiTS because every child will have what they need to learn and grow.

The fact that doctors are now learning how to cook is like a REVOLUTION.” -SAM KASS

Merilee Jennings, executive director of the Children's Discovery Museum, San Jose: Marketing is a huge part of it. We wanted to rethink our approach to food. [The museum opened its 2,000-square-foot Food Shed this year.] Instead of it being a visitor service or amenity, we decided to make it an essential part of the experience. But we needed the children to feel as though they were making the decision for themselves.

Geeta Maker-Clark, MD, University of Chicago Family Medicine: Our first challenge: How to start making people think that food IS medicine? People eat what tastes good. There’s no way to do that without making students learn how to cook as well.

Merilee: One of our challenges was creating a business model that proved good food was good business.

Chef Sam Kass, NBC News: We have to surround people with healthy options and make it MUCH easier and then make them desire it. The earlier we start, the more effective we are. The fact that doctors are now learning how to cook is like a REVOLUTION, because they’re one of the most trusted sources to help people aspire to make different (better) choices.

It’s all working. We have a long way to go, obviously, but there are so many different approaches. When you put them together, you start to get a culture that’s fundamentally better. It’s moving pretty fast. We’re now getting used to it, which is really good. The transformation that is happening is remarkable.

Geeta: Let me tell you a little about our program. It’s still kind of rare that doctors are learning how to cook.

From our perspective, this is a revolution in education. It’s a disruptive technology.” -GEETA MAKER-CLARK

From our perspective, this is a revolution in education. It’s a disruptive technology, because we’re changing the way we’re thinking about aspects of health. Not only that we’re making doctors think about vitamins and nutrients, but that they're going into the community. Often times it’s the community teaching us — by learning about their challenges, new flavors, where their food comes from.

Sam: The first step is exactly what's happening. It’s important to eat healthy. But we’re not going to get anywhere near it until we teach people these skills themselves — in 10 years, I hope, a doctor will say, “You’re pre-diabetic, I’m prescribing you fruits and vegetables.” Not only do they KNOW they need to eat healthy, but we help them DO IT. There are all kinds of barriers that make the daily execution less out of reach.

Geeta: The challenges are many. Still difficult to find the utility of this kind of work. It started as non-credit bearing. Now we’ve been able to find our way into the curriculum. From my perspective, it needs to be about community. How can we create more interaction in that way?

Merilee: There’s no middle of the road in this work. You’re either all-in or you're out.

Sam: Main barrier that remains is our culture. The underpinnings of all the change that we have to see is a reflection of where we are as a nation. The culture still needs to evolve on these issues.

That’s why children’s museums and medical community are huge influencers. The fact that food + nutrition have been completely absent from these institutions before this is insane. Once those come together — and education, sustainability, etc. converge to create a culture that’s strong enough and can cement these changes, remove barriers to people creating a healthier life for themselves. Right now this movement is a CULTURAL one, not a political one.

Geeta: It’s the how. People know what they’re supposed to eat. But where they get it, how do you prepare it — these are major obstacles we need to meet.

We need to connect food to health.” - SAM KASS

I tell my students to meet people where they're at. You can’t tell a patient to make a kale salad when they can't find a fresh apple anywhere within 5 miles. I ask them to ask questions, find out what’s available to patients and work from there. I can’t help their food access in the short term, but I can help them make better use of what they have.

The first recipe we teach them is spaghetti and sauce. Instead of meat we ask them to swap out meat for lentils. It’s easy to find, easy to store, and relatively easy to cook.

Sam: If you want nutrition to be part of the discourse, there’s no shortcuts. This is our work, and it’s our responsibility to continue to make this as important as those other issues.

We need to connect food to health.

The leadership has to come from us. It’s happening. We have to keep doing this work and elevating its importance.

Dr. Gary Bennett, Duke University: Hard to present data in a way that’s actionable.

We have a patient who took her day planner and started to track, in PEN (yes, they still exist), how she did each day, tracking it with a smiley face when she did well and a sad face when she didn’t. And she did the best of all the group.

We give people very specific goals — don’t eat sugary sodas, etc. In so doing we’ve moved away from the “app approach” (calorie counting, for example) in favor of a whole health approach.

The model that originated in the tech world is being emulated in the food world.” - MIKE LEE

Jason Langheier, Zipongo: Who here has used Amazon.com? [all hands] Who has used Lyft or Uber? [all hands] They meet you where you are. And by doing that, we’ve had a significant reduction in blood pressure, waist sizes, etc.

Incentives that are like, buy more of these fruits and veggies and we’ll give you $ for it — they work.

Jaclyn London, Good Housekeeping: The more we throw out conflicting information, we lose people. We cannot always talk at a certain level — we have to bring it to a way that is relatable and transferable.

Jason: Five years from now, with incentives from your health provider, you will be able to get a diet tailored for you. If you want a genetic profile, know whether you’re a fast metabolizer or a slow one.

Timothy Harlan, MD, Tulane: I offer my prediction that you will see food as a reimbursable expense from health insurance companies in 5 years.

Stephanie Lip, JWU alum + Monterey Peninsula Unified School District: Find out what was real with school food. There still exists a stigma that it’s for people who can’t afford to bring lunch, which we need to change. A lot of the food we saw were convenience items. Things weren’t cooked.

Alice Waters says this all the time, but pre-school lunch is crucial. Come into the cafeteria and don’t feel ashamed of eating the food. And [more kids eating our lunches] helps us plan our food costs and budgets accordingly. [Read more about Stephanie's work here.]

Nancy Easton, Wellness in the Schools: Lunch should be an important and healthy part of the school day.

Anne Williams, Wellness in the Schools: When children make it, they own it and they want to eat it.

Chef James Corwell, New Harvest: There are investors out there that want to make an investment in food.

Mike Lee, The Future Market: I work with an accelerator that whips food startups into shape. That model that originated in the tech world is being emulated in the food world.

James: American culture has been very meat-centric. We’re talking about going back to before the industrial revolution when the diet was more plant-forward. I can envision a land-based seaweed. Any item that’s subject to overfishing (like tuna) is subject to change. It’s about looking at any item that’s under stress and looking outside the box.

A movement is action. I believe that ... all of us in this room can make a difference.” -DENISE MORRISON
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L-R: Big questions from the audience (Photo by Robin Shreeves) / Chef James Corwell’s Tomato Sushi (Photo by Beard Foundation) / School lunch panel (Photo by ChefAction)

Leah Jones, Crickers: Cultural trends shift. Lobster was considered peasant food. With overfishing, lobster became more of a delicacy once it was less abundant. With alternative foods, it does require some initiative on the part of the consumer. [Leah is a founder of Crickers, a cricket-based cracker company. Like Stephanie, she is a FoodCorps alumna.]

Denise Morrison, Campbell’s CEO: American families are multicultural mosaics. Corporate food needs to respond to that.

Consumers want transparency, and it’s enabled by transparency. At Campbell’s, we want to be a force for good. We see seismic shifts in health and well-being. We’ve seen it manifest itself in consumer demands for fresh foods and organic foods.

We just bought Bolthouse Farms and Plum Organics. How can you make organic more affordable by bringing an economy of scale to it? I think the acquisition of Bolthouse made Campbell’s the world’s largest supplier of carrots.

People are absolutely emotionally engaged — there’s a profound change in the culture. We thank them for making our company better. Retail will continue to morph. We have to feed people responsibly.

A shift is something that happens over time and is usually enabled by either new tech or a killer app. Fads come and go. However, we are in a period as profound as when America went from an agrarian society to a more industrial one. It’s funny — we’re going back to that, but technology will be at the forefront.

A movement is that: It’s action. I do believe that movements are actions, and it’s behaving your way into a future where, together, all of us in this room can make a difference.

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Topics: Sustainability James Beard Foundation