Food for Thought From Denver

Greetings from Denver! I am here attending the 31st annual conference of the International Association for Culinary Professionals (IACP), joined by some 700 of my closest friends in the food world (including Food section editor Joe Yonan). We are writers, editors, farmers, chefs, entrepreneurs and artisan producers representing North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Asia. It is pretty darn cool to be among one’s brethren, people who speak the same language, often with their mouths full.

Setting up shop in between conference sessions. (Joe Yonan/The Washington Post)

This year's theme is "Pioneering a Sustainable World," an opportunity to discuss where our food comes from and how it's grown, raised or processed and how this conversation applies to the current economic crisis.

Yesterday's opening session, "The Soul of Sustainability," featured a panel moderated by radio personality Lynn Rossetto Kasper ("The Splendid Table"), who asked the questions I have been longing to hear addressed in a public forum: "Is this business about local and organic about the real world? And how do we offer safe, healthy and delicious food that is affordable to all people and their children?"

For we inside-baseball players, the assumption is that we all know what the word "sustainability" means; just a month ago, Obama Foodorama's Eddie Gehman Kohan asked me that very question, and I prefaced my response by saying, "I feel like my definition of this word is constantly changing, but here it is, as of today":

Sustainability is about shifts -- from a colossal, uber-industrialized, impersonal system with zero respect for the land, animals and the eating public to smaller, regional and/or localized business relationships that respect the land, the people who work it and the relationships between farm and table. It's about being transparent about where food comes from, how it's grown, raised and processed, and it's about honoring our natural resources and giving priority to the human element -- from conditions of farm workers to the highly preventable epidemic of teenage obesity and diabetes. Sustainability is about true democracy -- equal access to safe and nutritious food.

Yesterday, organic farmer and IACP Scholar-in-Residence Fred Kirschenmann reminded us that "Food is about relationships, but we have come to think of it as a thing, so we have lost all the rich connections to food."

And star chef Dan Barber (Blue Hill in New York City), who runs the ground-breaking farm-to-table program at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., offered this to chew on:

"Our food system is an insult to history, to the basic laws of nature. It is the General Motors mindset of farming -- take more, sell more, waste more, and for the future, it's not going to work for us." He argued that "the best ecological and ethical decisions are also the most flavorful."

Walter Robb, COO of Whole Foods Market, added this: "We cannot talk about sustainability and not talk about the conditions of agricultural workers."

As the first day of the conference came to a close, I wondered aloud what, if anything, the word "sustainability" means to you. Does it speak to your lives and how you shop, cook and eat? Is it a word that sounds more ethereal than practical? And, as Rossetto Kasper, asked, is this a moot point when so many people are struggling to simply get food on the table, local, organic or otherwise?

Clearly, there are no definitive answers or solutions to this enormously complex conversation, but in the spirit of "keeping it real," I welcome your input so that I may share it with my colleagues in the food world.

Have a delicious weekend.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 3, 2009; 10:43 AM ET Sustainability
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Thanks for the updates from Denver, Kim. Fascinating stuff. And great pic too!

Posted by: mauramcc | April 3, 2009 12:13 PM

I'm glad to see sustainability and affordability mentioned in the same breath. If is to break into the general population, there has to be accommodation for those with relatively little time or money or both.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | April 3, 2009 12:41 PM

In response to BB's comment, not only is sustainability an issue for producers -- it is one for consumers, as well. In order to support sustainable agriculture, and related environmental and social goals (making sure producers have middle-class incomes, not damaging the environment, humane animal husbandry, etc), consumers must also consider their part in the "food chain". Even if local foods become more affordable, reaching sustainability goals may require a shift in consumer priorities toward realizing that real food (as opposed to cheap, industrial food) still requires that we commit a greater portion of the family budget to food purchases, and that the convenience that comes with processed food may be incompatible with food sustainability. On convenience, it may be that spending Sundays with our children baking bread and cooking meals for the week using seasonal, local foods may have to become a priority use of our time if we are to improve our lives and the planet.

Posted by: virginia-locovore | April 3, 2009 2:35 PM

Virginia-locovore has eloquently put into words my feelings. I myself have begun to avoid foods that I know are shipped in from across the country. I will wait for local asparagus. I will try to get to the local farmers market or stand. Yes, it will be more expensive, but it is time to put my money where my mouth is. Instead of eating with abandon, I will learn to practice portion control. I stay away from processed food. It is time to become a better consumer and citizen.

Posted by: concetta27 | April 3, 2009 2:51 PM

Affordability is such an important facet. My husband and I eat many foods that are both local and organic but we can afford to spend more for food on a regular basis. Our three children are in their early 20's and struggling with this. They were used to eating organic/local growing up but as they balance their own very limited budgets, it is harder for them. They all cook so processed food/convenience isn't really an issue. It is prioritizing when they can/should spend more for local and organic. Especially difficult choices for many families.

Posted by: daconrad | April 3, 2009 3:05 PM

Hello Kim and Everyone - It's a lot easier for us in rural America to "eat local", since we're growing/raising a lot of it. Thanks to our local grocer, who stocks as many local products as he can, it's even easier.

That said, I buy "organic" when I can, but I don't raise "organic", and neither do my customers. A previous poster mentioned humane animal treatment, and since I've watched animals I care about die without antibiotics (sometimes quietly, sometimes horribly in pain), I do my best to make valid judgments about when to intervene. I don't feed antibiotic-laced feed or use generalized medicines in drinking water, but if and when it's necessary to prevent pain or death, I will.

My friends at South Mountain Dairy looked into "organic" a few years ago. The cost of hay alone would have been prohibitive. Add onto that the risk of losing valuable animals, plus, again, having to watch them die painfully, and they decided against it. There has to be balance.

Organic produce is easier. There are biological controls available, which I use, too, if I can. I control flies using rigorous cleaning and petromalid wasps, and it works very well. I have used grasshopper spore on my garden, too.

Becoming educated is the best strategy. Thanks to Kim and others, we're well on our way.

Posted by: lsgc | April 3, 2009 3:25 PM

Locovore - Many good thoughts are contained there, but families struggling to get by as it is aren't in the mood for a lecture. That's why affordability is key. Some principals of micro-agriculture can be applied on larger scales. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the better.

We're planning on converting a tiny patch of land (a border on the back porch) into a microgarden this year. Seeds aren't expensive and I'd like to start teaching my children about the link to the food on their plate and their environment.

I like to buy locally and shop farmer's markets. However, my coffee is from Costa Rica and my rice from California (Koshihikara) and India (Basmati). I make no apologies for selectivity.

Just a little food for thought.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | April 3, 2009 4:21 PM

welcome to Denver! I hope you brought warm clothes and that the snow we're expecting tonight doesn't get in your way. It's time for our bi-annual, pre-Pesach, snow storm!

My favorite things I associate with sustainable agriculture- heirloom seeds and animals, rain water collection/recycled water, and my favorite: farmers markets.

Posted by: violarulz | April 3, 2009 6:01 PM

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