I love food — being around it, cooking and eating it, sharing and learning about it — and most meaningfully, making sure that the bounty and access I have is also available to others.

I was at the National Food Policy Conference, sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America, in DC last week. Attendees included individuals from government agencies, the food industry, academia, public interest organizations, various nonprofits, nutritionists, activists, PR companies — all interested in key food policy issues. As we sat for two days, listening to speakers and panelists on controversial topics facing consumers, manufacturers, producers, and government, the urgency and complexity of food policy issues multiplied, exacerbated by a fiscal crisis, political inertia, and special interest lobbying. There is a lot to think about, there is a lot to worry about and there is so much to do.

Over the past several months, I have attended a handful of food policy events, from TedxManhattan‘s “Changing the Way We Eat” to Just Food‘s “Eat-Work-Grow the Movement” Conference to the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education & Policy’s “Bringing Policy to the Table: New Food Strategies for a Healthier Society.” And there are more gatherings and conversations weekly across a wide range of institutions and organizations across the country, too numerous to list. With each conversation, I learn more and go deeper into topics I am already familiar with. Here are the top hot topics from my perspective, inspired by the DC conference and on agendas everywhere.

1. How safe is our food? How does the FDA monitor domestic food products (as well as what comes into the U.S. food system from other countries?) What about the additives food companies use in processed food under the GRAS provision (Generally Recognized As Safe) since 1958 — a provision intended for common food ingredients, now used to categorize close to 10,000 food additives, 3,000 of which have not been tested by the FDA’s own admission. Tom Neltner, the director of the Food Additives Project in The Pew Health Group at The Pew Charitable Trusts, shared research on testing guidelines. Another concern is the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food; in the U.S., food companies are not required to list GMO or genetically engineered (GE) foods. Along these same lines, the use of antibiotics in the animals we eat is a growing concern. Other critical issues around animal welfare standards continue to emerge and challenge our system where meat is artificially cheap, the externalized cost borne via environmental and health bills we all pay. Individual state-level laws that prohibit (and in fact criminalize) undercover reporting of factory farming of animals — the “Ag Gag” — are troubling, to say the least.

2. Food Waste — NRDC released figures estimating food waste to be 30-40 percent of what travels from farm to fork through the U.S. food system. The EPA estimates this to be over 65 billion pounds of food a year, a large portion from household waste. The implications of this figure range from tangible quantities of food which could be used to fight hunger; the impact of wasted food production and our limited natural resources as agriculture and food production can be extremely energy and water-intensive; and food waste is a major component of our landfills. Food waste could be diverted into productive use through composting. The UN has launched an anti-food waste initiative, thinkeatsave.org, underscoring the global importance of immediate action.

3. Hunger and Food Insecurity — according to the USDA, in 2012, 1 in 4 Americans participated in a government food or nutrition assistance program. Their research shows that 68 percent of food-insecure families contain at least one full-time working adult. Most food stamp/SNAP beneficiaries are children, seniors, working parents, and people with disabilities. A signature of our times, the prevalence of hunger with obesity, is in part the result of lack of access to healthy foods in many low-income communities and the predominance of cheap, unhealthy calories. Other contributing factors, such as lifestyle, unemployment, and healthcare, are part of a complex web of social conditions, with food being a key component. It must be unacceptable to all of us that in the richest country in the history of the world, families strategically plan for days when family members will not eat because they have no food.

4. Immigration Reform — how the lack of policy affects agricultural workers and farmers with a cascade of issues from decent working conditions and fair wages for migrant and undocumented farmworkers to the ability of farmers to hire steady and authorized workers. In the U.S., we underestimate how important the immigrant contribution is to our food system.

5. Farm Bill legislation — from subsidies to the largest growers to the impact on key nutrition program funding, the Farm Bill touches vast swaths of American lives in ways most of us don’t know. Polls show that many Americans favor reducing subsidy payments to the largest farmers, and at the same time want to continue to pay for programs funding local as well as international anti-hunger relief efforts. Congress did not succeed in passing a new farm bill in 2012 and extended the 2008 bill for nine months.

6. Impact of climate change on our food supply — the extreme weather patterns affecting farm communities, from droughts, flooding, temperature extremes, and other uncontrollable conditions. Every conversation about agriculture now includes provisions for thinking about an altered landscape.

7. The impact of reduced resources on regulation, legislation, and change — what does the current economic climate hold for food policy issues? Think about this — the poultry industry has grown four-fold since the Reagan era, yet the inspection budget has not. Looking ahead, the poultry industry will potentially self-regulate. Currently, government inspectors look at 140 birds/minute. Under proposed changes, poultry industry inspectors will look at 175/minute, leaving 1/3 of a second for each bird to be inspected. This will save the government about $90 million over 3 years. Self-regulating industry — what an optimistic concept.

This is a partial list — a mini “menu” of the myriad of issues categorized as the food policy agenda. I return to my day job as CEO of Great Performances, where we feed the most privileged New Yorkers daily, with new determination to make every meal we cook help fuel an agenda that demands accountability for what is in the food we serve and who is missing at the table.

Liz Neumark

DIGESTING THE TEDx FOOD CONFERENCE

The topic was Changing the Way We Eat, an independently organized event, TED-style, by Diane Hatz, Co-Founder, and Director of the Glynwood Institute. Held at The Times Center, it was a gathering of individuals interested in our food system: how things grow, what gets grown, who eats/who doesn’t, what’s in the food we eat (are you sure you want to know?), what about the environment (affecting food/being affected by agriculture) and what about the other animals (the ones we eat). And more.

There is almost nothing better than feeling passionate about a cause and then spending time with a crowd that treasures the same value set. It is an opportunity to visit with a good many friends and acquaintances and make new connections as well.

It is inspirational to listen to incredibly intelligent and well-informed speakers who articulately speak on topics I already care about, and then add another dimension of analysis and new information or perspective. I recommend watching the talks online, as several were quite outstanding.

But something really surprised me about the experience. I anticipated leaving positively stimulated and energized to continue the fight for a better, more just, healthier food system. I joined my family for dinner out and discovered that instead of feeling upbeat and rejuvenated, I was actually angry; I was mad at everyone who ate meat for dinner, annoyed at the restaurant for even having asparagus on the menu, frustrated at the lack of transparency on the fish items (where was this fish from and was it really what they said it was) and ballistic that there was any ambiguity as to the destructive nature of hydrofracking.

Perhaps the conference had not intended to give us hope — but rather to disrupt any complacency around the pace of change and the evolution of a national agenda around food policy. Simply put, it is like changing any complex and ingrained system that is deeply rooted in the economic advantages of powerful self-interests.

It was several days before the cloud lifted. I could barely stop thinking about the confinement of sows in the face of the national obsession with bacon. How hard an equation is that? Or the transformation of our agricultural world, increasingly defined by commodity crops, GMO seeds, toxins, and consolidation. Or wondering about the true contents of food sourced from someone or someplace I do not personally know.

  • The week ended on a different note. I participated in a 2.5-hour conference call with a food policy workgroup I belong to. We were updating several agendas when a positive perspective emerged. A lot has changed in the past 5 years. Though there is a long way to go, a great deal has happened. Here is the not-all-together-bad-news, in no particular order:
  • Food deserts are being talked about with proactive results. Government incentives, private sector undertakings, philanthropic activities are creating solutions for supermarkets, slowly, but creatively. Green carts have entered the lexicon.
  • Enrollment in state/local programs that address hunger issues has been streamlined and made more user-friendly. And while farm bill politics and impacts are terrifying, incremental program change is good.
  • Food stamps are accepted in some farmers markets, a practice that should continue to spread, benefiting both shoppers as well as farmers.
  • Purchasing guidelines are changing to encourage the institutional buying of locally grown products.
  • School lunch is on the national agenda, with progress to report and a long and complex road to still travel.
  • Solutions to regional distribution and processing challenges are being developed and tested daily. Food hubs are a growing phenomenon, and increasingly evolving into solutions.
  • Farmers, while struggling on many fronts, are succeeding on others, with increased demand for their product, new sophistication on season extension, engaging in creating added-value products, and connecting to regional aggregation methods.
  • Obesity, while seemingly hard-wired into our broken health and food system, is being talked about in communities everywhere, engaging researchers, government officials, the healthcare community, educators, non-profits, and local communities.
  • The topic of food waste is “on the table,” a step in galvanizing action. The potential of collaborative solutions — farmers and food banks for example — is a good model to study and replicate.
  • Witness the enormous surge in interest in locally grown food and engagement in the question of “where did my food come from?”
  • Immigration and agricultural labor practices — so far from any meaningful resolution — is a topic of national debate.
  • Economics will dictate a shift in policy — we are beginning to see evidence of how better practices and policies are actually good for the bottom line. And as cynical as I am about big business greed and shortsightedness, I have reason to hope that change will happen.

There is a very very long way to go — in spite of real movement, the numbers of hungry, obese, food-insecure Americans continue to grow. Even if you are not hungry, there are serious issues you should worry about regarding food transparency and health and the environmental implication of food policies. Feeling angry and indignant over these issues is not uplifting and feeling good about what progress has been made doesn’t serve to counterbalance the frustration of the glacial speed of progress.

But the discussion is louder, the engagement is higher, the participants are galvanized and the change will happen. I will live with my discomfort and anger — it is the appetizer at every meal fueling my commitment to this fight and to being a part of a solution.