What if I told you that America's food system is broken? What would you say?
Would you defend it by pointing out the abundance of choices offered in today's average supermarket, estimated to be over 45,000 items? Would you cite that per capita spending on food has dropped significantly over the last 50 years, freeing up incomes to improve quality of life? Would you talk about how American innovation is not only feeding our citizens, but is also feeding the world? Or would you quietly ask what a food system is?
While perhaps it's not "broken," America's industrial food system, which dominates food sales, has developed side effects that are accelerating in severity, especially diet-related health (e.g., obesity, diabetes, asthma, allergies) and environmental (e.g., chemical toxins, soil degradation, carbon emissions) issues that can no longer be ignored.
The food industry's insatiable drive toward cheaper, more convenient products has also disrupted the simple pleasures of cooking, eating and/or sharing meals with family and friends, turning food into an accessory, a lofty drop from once being an intimate part of our daily lives.
The good news is there is an increasingly vocal ground swell of advocates and experts working to reverse the downsides of industrial food -- several of which have become lightning rods for the powerful and entrenched corporate interests being challenged, which commonly label them as "elitist" or "anti-ag." Such claims, both untrue and unfair, are designed to minimize any impact these knowledgeable voices have on public opinion and consumer spending. Look no further than industrial food's aggressive reactions to the Food, Inc. documentary to see it in action.
One thing is clear, we can no longer allow industry to control the dialog. But fighting fire with fire, especially the use of fear to influence consumer behavior, doesn't sit well, and would probably be less effective than other approaches. To that end, I've attempted to define the concept of "Pro Food" based on a set of core principles that get at the heart of why I, and others, are dedicated to driving these principles into mainstream culture through communications and alternative food systems.
PRO FOOD IS...
- Inclusive - Everybody is part of Pro Food, since everyone can gain from its success.
- Pro Farm - Fresh, healthy, and sustainable food starts with the farmers who grow it. Without their dedication, stewardship of the land and tireless labor it is difficult to envision Pro Food getting out of the gate.
- Pro Consumer - Today's conventional food system has invested billions of dollars in constructing a food infrastructure designed to do one thing: sell as much food as possible, as quickly and cheaply as possible. This strategy has been good for bottom lines, bad for waistlines and even worse for personal healthcare costs. Pro Food envisions bringing farm and plate together in innovative retail experiences that go beyond convenience to embrace flavor, taste, seasonal rhythms, community and health.
- Pro Cooking - Where would we be without cooking? Unfortunately for the last few generations, cooking has been left by the wayside in exchange for cheap, convenient substitutes as people became increasingly squeezed for time and energy. In many ways, Pro Food is based in the home kitchen, the best place to ensure we eat sustainably every day.
- Pro Eating - The only thing possibly more important than cooking is eating. And while Pro Food places an emphasis on awakening America's home kitchens, it also recognizes that many institutions (schools, hospitals, corporate cafeterias) and restaurants are doing their part in bringing the same healthy, flavorful and sustainable food on to every plate they serve.
- Community-Oriented - Pro Food recognizes the simple pleasure of bringing people together around food. Information is shared, bonds are strengthened and friendships are made. It also appreciates the economic benefits it can bring to regional food economies. Sustainable food can be imported (in the absence of local options), but increasing demand being met through local channels, there will be incentive for farms and processors to participate, as well as for existing providers to transition to sustainable production. Keeping money circulating longer within regional economies is key to Pro Food efforts.
- Entrepreneurial - Building a meaningful Pro Food presence in a food system dominated by massive conventional players with deeply entrenched interests (and reach) will take a lot of hard work, innovation and old fashioned luck. Fortunately we can leverage America's entrepreneurial spirit in systematically building the ever-broader foundation needed to move Pro Food forward.
What Pro Food ultimately becomes is up to those who recognize and embrace its ideal of healthy, sustainable food systems and make it their own. For it is up to all of us, from farmers to eaters, and everyone else who cares about the food they eat, to carry Pro Food forward and make its vision, its values a reality.
In some very interesting ways, Pro Food draws parallels with the early years of the Internet, when it was still isolated from the mainstream in government and university labs. People, especially entrepreneurs, were starting to eye the Internet as something that could revolutionize communications and collaboration, that could democratize things long centralized. At first, they had no idea what was going to stick, but began applying time, energy and money in search of winning formulas.
This is where I see Pro Food today, which makes it financially exciting for those with solutions to the problems we face. I look forward to joining them and others on this exciting journey.