Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Prince Charles and Laurie David in One Room with an Array of Notable Food Experts

The past is a funny thing. I'm not a huge follower of the British royals, but I've definitely been aware of a few of their goings on over the years. Although I don't have any recollection of actually watching Diana and Charles' wedding in 1981, I do remember her dress, as well as media reports of the hollow nature of their marriage soon after. I guess watching William and Kate's wedding last week with my teenaged daughter reminded me of watching that earlier wedding as a teenager myself.

I certainly didn't expect my reaction when I heard that Prince Charles was going to be the keynote speaker at the Washington Post Live's Future of Food conference last week. My first thought had nothing to do with his commitment to sustainable agriculture, which is long-standing and seems heartfelt and sincere. I just couldn't get those images of Diana's sad face out of my mind.

Once he started his speech, though, his thoughtful words about the practicality and economics of sustainable agriculture and his engaging delivery made me forget about his personal life. He spoke for 40 minutes or so, giving a focused, well crafted and calmly passionate speech. You can see the transcript of his speech here if you're interested.

He wasn't alone. The lineup of speakers and panelists was thrilling: Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Marion Nestle, Will Allen, Sam Kass, Dan Barber, Angela Glover Blackwell, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, as well as other CEOs, writers, activists, policy makers, policitians and thinkers. I had not heard of her before, but was just wowed by Debra Eschmeyer, a relatively young and totally impressive woman who founded FoodCorps and is the outreach director of the National Farm to School Network in addition to working her own organic farm. While there were representatives of food corporations, most that participated have already added healthier food initiatives into their structure. According to Eric Schlosser, most corporations declined to participate. Congratulations to Susan Crockett who gamely represented General Mills.

Two of the panelists were the founders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which successfully achieved a one cent per pound increase in pay for migrant tomato pickers in that area of Florida. They had a lot to say about the poor working conditions for the agriculture workers and how that small increase in pay makes such a difference. We also heard from Eric Schlosser about the dangers of pesticides, not just to us as consumers, but to the farm workers on regular commercial farms who are in contact with contaminated soil every day. If you are interested in learning more about the tomato workers, the amazing Barry Estabrook (recent recipient of a James Beard award - too bad he wasn't speaking at the conference too!) has written a soon to be released book called Tomatoland on the subject. You can also see his articles on the subject here.

Even the lunch made a statement. As we entered the room, somewhat reminiscent of the dining set up at Hogwarts with four long tables, we were asked by greeters to file in, remaining in the line we were in and seat ourselves along one side of the table in that order. This made for a pleasant way to avoid the awkward need to find a place to sit when attending a conference solo. The greeters and servers were a mix of volunteers and participants in DC Central Kitchen's restaurant training program. At my place setting was a napkin holder decorated by Raquel, a third grade student at one of the DC public schools participating in a healthy food and ecology curriculum being piloted by FarmtoDesk and funded by Kaiser Permanente.

The meal was composed entirely of local organic foods from farms and producers within 200 miles of DC. Everything was served family style, which was another nice way to meet the people seated nearby. We enjoyed two salads to start: a crab salad over greens and a wheatberry and apple salad over arugula. On the table was a cheese board with three cheeses, Damson plum jam and a local honey, along with some artisanal crackers. While we joked that a crisp white wine would be a perfect addition, we happily substituted strawberry agua fresca with mint. We were all a bit surprised when the next course arrived, as we thought the salads and cheeses were the lunch. We then had lamb kabobs with flat bread and tzatziki, cannellini beans with kale and hen of the woods mushrooms and asparagus with sorrel. Strawberry rhubarb cobbler with whipped cream followed for dessert. Did I mention this conference was free?

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was the previously unannounced afternoon keynote speaker, cutting short a very interesting panel with Marion Nestle on Health and Nutrition. He was very generous with both his time and opinions, some of which were not terribly popular in this crowd. Although he's taken some positive steps in attempts to improve school lunches and get fresh fruits and vegetables to more people in areas that have been under supplied, his support of genetically modified alfalfa and grains and failure to eliminate hormones in livestock are opposed to the general opinions in the sustainable agriculture philosophy. Hollywood activist, Laurie David, questioned him from the audience on the issue of why we are still allowing healthy animals to be injected with antibiotics.

Marion Nestle later stated on her blog that the sustainable food movement is now mainstream. There certainly is momentum and energy fueled by these great thinkers and activists who've been writing and lobbying on these issues for years and given a hit of a double espresso by Michelle Obama's healthy food and living initiatives.

One major theme that I took away from this conference is the importance of cooking at home, and the need to bring healthy, clean foods as well as cooking knowledge to the poor and people of color.

I'm still trying to figure out my role in all this. I'd like to play a part somehow, but haven't yet found the right niche. For now, I'd be content to know that I helped one or two of you make the task of cooking a family meal a little bit easier.


  1. Wendy -
    Thank you so much for sharing! I am quite passionate about the various food movements - sustainable, local, etc. I certainly don't live my values as much as I would like. That is my own fault - I don't organize my schedule and my life accordingly. Lord knows that living in NYC one has access to organic, local, sustainably grown food if one simply makes the effort. Thank you for the reminder that I need to make this a priority.

    I would have LOVED the conference you attended! So jealous I wasn't there with you. I'm going to see Michael Pollan speak this Friday night. I am beyond excited!

    Heather McGrew

  2. Thanks Heather! Attending the conference renewed my energy for this for sure. I'm really optimistic. Enjoy Michael Pollan - he's a great speaker. I heard him a couple of years ago right after Food Matters went into paperback.