Inaugural Food Tank Summit Reveals a System Hungry for Change

Food waste, distribution inequality, changing agriculture and workers’ rights are among 21st century challenges.

Food Tank
Executive Director of the Sustainability Collaborative Kathleen Merrigan, GW student Haley Burns, Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg, Urban Food Task Force Chair Diane Knapp and George Washington President Steven Knapp. Photo Credit: Hadley Jordan
January 26, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

The George Washington University made tracks on Twitter last week as the hub for the first annual Food Tank Summit.

The two-day conference—the brainchild of Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg—explored the challenges of navigating the trail from farm to table.

“We are here at this conference to imagine the kind of food system where we honor our values, where women, youth, workers and animals all have a seat at the table, and no one is left on the outside looking in,” Ms. Nierenberg said.

George Washington President Steven Knapp highlighted the deep interest of students, faculty and staff in the food system during welcome remarks, and interest proved to be widespread as more than 15,000 people from 135 countries tuned into the conference live stream online.

By Thursday morning, #FoodTank was trending on Twitter in the top spot worldwide.   

“The amazing level of interest in this summit testifies to the concern about food and nutrition that has exploded across the world and on campuses across the country,” said Urban Food Task Force Chair Diane Knapp.

Broadcast live, the event showcased discussions among GW faculty and students, policymakers, farmers, industry leaders and concerned citizens on the issues of the food system—from the shift to industrialized agriculture and the plight of farm workers to sustainability concerns and the links between hunger and food waste.

Between discussions, documentary films were screened depicting the food system’s changing face and far-reaching effects.

A former Peace Corps volunteer, Ms. Nierenberg co-founded Food Tank in 2013 to engage the public on food issues on a national and global scale. Photo Credit: Hadley Jordan.

Both Ms. Knapp and Executive Director of the Sustainability Collaborative Kathleen Merrigan said the summit complements the university’s ongoing efforts to build a “food revolution” through student work in food justice, research on nutrition and the development of a Food Institute.

“I am so excited to be working with 170 faculty members and the many GW research institutes engaged in sustainability work on our campus—what a great opportunity for me,” Dr. Merrigan said.

Dr. Merrigan added that as Princeton Review’s “most politically active” student body of 2014, GW was a fitting host for the conference since “food is first and foremost, a political issue.”

A discussion of  “Carnitas-gate”—the recent decision by Chipotle to suspend a pork supplier due to poor animal welfare standards— between moderator National Public Radio reporter and editor Eliza Barclay and Joshua Brau, Chipotle’s Food With Integrity program manager, highlighted the issue of maintaining integrity in the food supply chain as companies attempt to expand sustainably.

“In the long run it’s a challenge,” Mr. Brau said. “The supply chain really needs to grow along with us as we face this short-term shock. And we need to grow our supply—of not just pork—we really need to see the growth of farms that are growing food.”

Unfortunately—as one panel examined— the current structure of agriculture can harm workers who are often paid wages so low that they cannot feed their families.

Elizabeth Shuler, secretary/treasurer and chief financial officer of the AFLCIO, said there should be “no separation between good food and good working conditions.”

“What our workers win at the bargaining table directly affects what we put on the dinner table,” Ms. Shuler added.

National Young Farmers Coalition leader Eric Hansen weighed in on how flight from farming communities affect the agricultural system. He added that weakening family farm communities continue to struggle to compete in the industry on a large scale.

The difficulty of competing with large companies such as Publix was exemplified in the documentary, “Food Chains.” In the film, a farmer lets his crops rot because it is cheaper than shipping the crops for sale.

Food waste statistics across the board were startling. According to Planet Forward Director Dan Reed, if food waste were a country it would be ranked third in the world in terms of green house gas emissions.

To Ben Simon, executive director of the Food Recovery Network, that means the United States “does not have a hunger problem, it has a food distribution problem.”

Scott Davis, executive vice president of Panera Bread, suggested that millenials could be the driving force to change the direction of the food system.

“Millenials are becoming a serious force in the restaurant industry,” Mr. Davis said. “They want to know to what degree food is local, the worker conditions and the pay—restaurants have a lot of challenges on how to really dial into what millenials want.”

According to Dr. Merrigan, the sea change required to revolutionize agriculture and the food system could begin with the summit attendees. GW plans to host another Food Tank Summit next year.

“For me there are a lot of heroes and… ‘she-roes’ in the audience, this is an outstanding line up of speakers,” she said. “New visions, new politics—that is what I hope we talk about today.”