SXSW Panels: Woke Food
SXSW food track navigates contemporary food systems
By Emily Beyda,
12:20PM, Tue. Mar. 14, 2017
Monday's SXSW food track covered food activism, diversity, and community. Here are a few highlights.
Over the past few years in Korea, a popular new form of live streaming has emerged. Called mukbang, it consists of a videoblogger sitting down in front of the camera and consuming an enormous meal as she chats with her followers. Connecting over meals is one of the most essential forms of human connection. In a panel moderated by Padma Lakshmi, Vijay Karunamurthy, the CEO of Nom, Michelle Davis, co-founder of Thug Kitchen, and Nick Taranto, co-founder & co-CEO of Plated, discussed the ways in which technology can help people make a human connection over food.
They started out the panel by discussing how homemade meals have gained new traction in the food media space. As Lakshmi put it, “To me, it’s become almost entertainment in a way, not just food and cooking shows, but that the actual act of cooking can be the entertainment for the evening. And that’s great to me, because I think the number one thing people can do for their health is to cook more at home.” Taranto believes that with Americans becoming more and more interested in personal expression through food and cooking, data analysis can be an effective way to improve consumers’ experiences. “We’re interested in using our ability to harness data and personalize meals to meet an individual need. The modern consumer, and the way she eats, has changed enormously over the past 10 years.” Karunamurthy believes that live streaming can serve a similarly communal purpose. “It’s almost a social experience that everyone shares together. The rainbow sprinkles fad, for example, shows the social community drive, a desire to go back to the foods of your childhood. We can connect with what people are cooking in their own kitchen. People make those choices because we can see our friends participating along with us.” By streaming their cooking experiences, users of video-sharing websites can cook together, share expertise, and come together in a shared digital kitchen. “On weekends, we see a lot of people watching and streaming. Sundays, for example, have become big baking days, where people relax with their kids and spend three hours making a cake, streaming and sharing the recipe with their communities.”
Karunamurthy emphasized the importance of digital platforms in bringing a diversity of voices to the food media world. “People want to see chefs from all over the country. I hope there’s a lot more of that, that people realize wherever you are you’re going on this journey together, and bonding with this experience.” Lakshmi, agreed, saying “It’s the modern version of recipe swapping, or going to the state fair to present your apple pie.”
SXSW is all about optimism. Most of the talks here focus on the infinite possibilities of the future, how everything is going to be bigger, better, faster, brighter from here on out. How we can access a better world through smart coding and intentional consumption; a vision of a kind of late-stage capitalistic utopia where you can fix what ails you, heal the world, by buying the right things in the right way. This panel on food activism, hosted by Strategar's Yareli Esteban, Snappy Salads' Chris Dahlander, United States Healthful Food Council's Caesare Assad, and Nectar's Imran Charania, was no exception, striking an uneasy balance between realpolitik misery and tech nerd optimism. They believe that food is going through a revolution that is both cosmetic and fundamental. As Esteban put it, “Consumers are no longer satisfied with the way things have been operating for the last 30, 40 years, but we believe we are in a position to make a change.”
That is precisely what they aim to do with their movement, Occupy Your Meal, creating a community of conscientious eaters to create systemic change through the personal choices they make around food and eating. A big part of this is being aware of the daily choices you make, and looking at the environment around you. They encourage eaters to do background research when going out to eat.“See if there’s a food scientist on their staff,” says Dahlander, who was cautiously optimistic of the direction the American industrialized food system is taking. “There are some companies that are making strides and trying to do good things, and I hate to say it, but McDonald’s is one of them. Campbell’s is starting to bring real foods into their soups again, and eliminate all the chemicals that have been put into those itty bitty cans.”
Assad emphasized the role of individual choices in effecting systemic change, “The reason these guys are shifting is because we are shifting. Consumer demand is shifting. People are more interested in accountability and consuming real food.” For larger brands, consumers can look for various types of sustainability and health certification. While certification might not be perfect, it least it lets you know that a company is interested in being held accountable and trying to do the right thing. Still, the problem is that many types of certification are extremely expensive to obtain. It costs ten thousand dollars to get organic certification, a process that can be prohibitively expensive for small farmers, making it meaningless if you’re buying locally from farmer’s markets. With all the enormous systemic problems with our food system, it can feel impossible to affect change on a personal level, but these panelists were optimistic. As Dahlander put it, “I don’t know how you can change the world without personally looking at what you’re doing, taking a close look at how you act and what you’re doing. If we look at how we’re spending our money, that’s how we can go the farthest, quickest.”
On this panel, sponsored by the Innovation Center for US Dairy and moderated by The Hartman Group's Melissa Abbott; FTW Venture's Brian Frank, Fair Oaks Farms & Fairlife farmer Sue McCloskey, and AeroFarms' David Rosenberg got together to talk about the role of technology in shaping consumer preferences in a changing food system. The way that Americans think about sustainability and consumption has radically shifted over the past few decades. As Frank put it, “We’ve gone from this industrialized food system of the Fifties and Sixties to a completely different mindset about what consumers are looking to get out of their food.” Mobile technology allows consumers to unlock access to information on the go, to look for foods that meet their particular values, the needs of their family. Because of this transparency has become the new norm, and increasingly, consumers have questions about the food they buy and eat. We are better informed than they’ve ever been before at any point in American history, and more curious. In a study conducted by Abbott and her colleagues at The Hartman Group, 65% of Americans surveyed said companies earn consumer trust by being open about what’s in their products, and 55% wanted specific details about how their products were made, and who made them.
So how, in an atmosphere of increasing mistrust of behind the scene interactions between food and technology, how can brands establish trust? According to Frank, part of the problem is definitional. Most people think technology and food means GMOS, or increasing use of chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers. On the contrary, he said, “These people are using robots, they’re using computers, they’re using a lot of technology. But it shouldn’t be about fetishizing technology. It should be about making better food.” Farmers and food producers have to explain technology to the consumer in a way that’s going to help people understand and appreciate it’s uses. For McCloskey, it’s all about personal engagement. “You show them. We have busloads of people come to Fair Oaks Farm from urban areas, rural areas, all around the world, and they’re able to have their questions answered with complete honesty. We need to be able to say to ourselves that if there’s something we’re doing that I can’t explain in a clear and comprehensive way, maybe we need to take another look at those practices. We understand that we have to have those conversations, and we embrace the idea of having those conversations.”
We also need to look at the ways technology can improve the lives of farmers in the developing world, to help people help themselves and help them develop their economy. According to McCloskey, “The majority of the world’s farmers are women. If you could give these women the ability to grow more food than they need to support their families on a subsistence level, it would change their lives. We always talk about how technology can benefit us and what we need, but we need to remember that we are part of a world, we are part of a community.” Ultimately, for Rosenberg, applying technological innovations to food production is a matter of social responsibility. “We need a new paradigm of how we create our food. We need to embrace new behavioral patterns, and apply these new innovations towards how we create our food.”
Americans waste millions of pounds of food per year. According to statistics cited by panelists Jane Francisco of Good Housekeeping, Sam Kass of Innit, Dana Gunders of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Jennifer Benuso of Whirlpool, 40% of food that passes through the supply chain isn’t eaten. 25% of the water used in agriculture production is used to grow food that is never eaten. 21% of everything that goes into American landfills is food. Kass suggests that the roots of this problem might lie in shifting cultural attitudes and behaviors. “We’re asking people to cook more and waste less. Our lifestyles are speeding up, transforming in every way, but in the kitchen people are still cooking like they did in the Fourties.”
But Francisco thinks that people can affect food waste patterns by changing their personal behaviors to effect systemic change. “The number one thing you can do to reduce food waste is plan ahead and do your grocery shopping appropriately. But life is so busy and hectic that it can be hard. One of the things we’re trying to get people to do is be loose with the way they’re cooking, substitution, cooking your fridge, looking for recipes to use what they have when things are starting to look wilty, what you can do with them.” By changing our cultural attitudes about food scraps and imperfect food, we can dramatically reduce food waste.
Kass says that, "Part of the issue is a really bad branding problem. It’s not waste, it’s good food that’s being thrown away. I don’t want to eat waste, waste is garbage, but this food is perfect. It might not be the prettiest food, but when it’s cooked well it’s delicious. We need a positive messaging frame to talk about how to handle food that would otherwise be wasted and make it taste good.” Gunders added that, in her experience, “A lot of really good food is being thrown out because of the ‘when in doubt, throw it out’ mantra. But the head of the food research institute said that he has never, in his forty years of working, heard of someone getting sick from eating food that was too old. Our bodies are really well equipped to know when not to eat food, when it will make us sick. If it looks fine, tastes fine, and smells fine, it’s likely fine to eat.”
The way we can change the endemic systemic problems caused by food waste, according to the panel, is to get to a point where wasting food is socially unacceptable. On an individual level, we need to be conscious about the waste we’re producing, to look at and think about our own waste. Why are you producing the waste you produce? Where does it come from? Kass, believes that, as a society, we need to put more intentional thought towards eating whole foods, the parts of the plants and animals we throw away because we think it’s not good to eat. “A lot of that stuff is completely edible, and if you cook it right it tastes great.” Gunders, agreed, adding, “Part of it is awareness, looking at the food waste around you. Another part of that is information. But part of it is convenience, how sometimes it just feels easier to order take out. And the biggest part of overcoming inconvenience is social pressure; if you’re aware wasting food isn’t acceptable, you’re going to think a little harder about it.” As Kass said, “Our food behaviors are one of the deepest aspects of our culture. There are policies and technologies that can help shift this, but ultimately, it’s a question of culture, of cultural priorities.”
According to the bureau of labor statistics says that the majority of people in top of the line, creative positions in kitchens are white men. 80% of James Beard awards go to white chefs, and of the remaining 20% of chefs of color who get the award are largely male. Darian Harvin, of Buzzfeed, sat down with The Gates Preserve's Syreeta Gates, meroë & Co's Candace Queen, and SheChef's Elle Simone to discuss how they have attempted to address the larger social issues of representation in the kitchen with their nonprofit organization Stay Hungry.
Gates was inspired to start Stay Hungry when she googled, “hip hop and food,” and the only thing that came up were lyrics of songs that mentioned food. She was interested in exploring this connection, but the resources she wanted didn’t exist. Stay Hungry works within urban food deserts to organize cooking competitions for young people inspired by hip hop beefs, each team of young people mentored by a chef/coach who helps them plan a meal and go head to head with a rival team. Each team is assigned a different hip hop lyric, and cooks a recipe inspired by it, making a personal connection with the music on the plate. The chef coaches select a lyric, Stay Hungry orders food based on the content, and the students and chefs have four hours to work together to plan and execute their lyrically inspired meals. Simone explains, “They can be creative at the time of competition about the ways they want to transform that lyric into food.”
Before she joined Stay Hungry, Queen was researching the demographics of food deserts at UT. By working with Stay Hungry, she feels that her work is having a real impact on the community and affecting ground level change. As Gates put it, “A lot of times in our communities, we live in food deserts, so the only thing we have access to is KFC, McDonalds, etc etc. And in the process of ordering a number five and a fruit punch, you don’t get to cook, you don’t have access to raw ingredients. This is the first time a lot of them cooked steak, or green vegetables. And we hear from parents that it’s changing their children’s behavior, they can’t get them out of the kitchen.” Simone agreed, adding, “Representation is very important. If you don’t see yourself in something, you don’t see yourself in something. They get to meet these chef coaches, seeing themselves represented in a plethora of ways that will get them to start thinking about their life outside the food desert.”
Gasparro cut right to the chase. “It doesn’t mean anything! There are no regulations about what can be labeled natural when it comes to packaged food. The FDA is in the process of creating standards for the word ‘natural,’ but right now it’s hard because when you see the word natural you don’t necessarily know what that means. The USDA has a definition of natural that means you’re not having any preservatives added to the meat, nothing to do with the diet or quality of life of the animal.” Collins went even further, saying, “For me it’s a warning sign, because it means the company doesn’t have anything specifically good to say about their food.” So if you’re buying a product labeled “all natural,” make sure to take a close look at the ingredients list.
Dickson says that biodynamic agriculture goes “beyond organic,” taking extra steps to ensure that crops and animals are brought to market through a holistic engagement with the land. “It starts at its core,” he says, “With organic principles, and most growers are certified organic, but goes beyond that. Biodynamic farmers have to devote a certain amount of land to biodiversity, There’s the use of herbal preparations and special composts, planting according to the lunar cycle.” Think of biodynamic agriculture as organic plus, a farming method that is concerned with the natural life cycles of the products they grow, engaging in ancient agricultural traditions.
Unfortunately, those cage free eggs you’ve been springing for might not be as chicken friendly as you hoped. As Dickson explains, “You can have animals that are labeled cage free that are packed into rooms where they have even less space than they did when they were in cages.”
Much like cage free eggs, grass fed milk might not live up to the idyllic image its name suggests. Dickson says,“The norm in America today is that cows live most of their lives eating grass, then end their lives eating grain in a feedlot. Grass fed beef is a reaction to that model. For an animal to be classified as grass fed meat, it has to have eaten mostly grass throughout its whole life. Grass fed dairy is huge, and there’s less self regulation in that industry and no government regulation at all.”
Gasparro says that labeling around genetically modified foods is well regulated but limited in its scope. “This has to do with the seeds that are planted to grow the corn and soybeans that make ingredients, like high fructose corn syrups, used in packaged foods. There are a few regulatory bodies that look at this, so you know it’s certified by someone other than the company.” But, as Pincoffs warns, “To be clear, just because non GMO is on the label does not mean it’s good for you. You can have non GMO garbage as well.”
Dickson described the origination of the USDA organic label by explaining how, “The organic standard was introduced due to widespread fraud, because in many states non organic apples and onions were being sold as organic.” Today, organic produce must be grown without pesticides. Animals must have access to the outdoors. Organic farmers can’t use any GMOS. “Out of all the food claims we talked about in preparing for this, I can’t think of another that’s more heavily regulated,” says Dickson, although he added that in an era when consumers are increasingly mistrustful of the government, this isn’t always a good thing. Still, Pincoffs calls it, “The most codified standards that goes across everything.” The organic label is a fairly reliable catchall label that rules out some of the worst excesses of industrialized agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is dedicated to intentionally restoring grasslands through the use of grazing animals Gasparro, the founder of EPIC meat bars, is a fan of regenerative agriculture because he believes, “It creates diverse habitats for native species and migratory species. It’s about healing the land, improving it, making it a better place than it was before.” While sustainable agriculture tries to maintain land at the same quality throughout years of growing cycles, Gasparro says that, “Regenerative farming tries to create a net positive outcome, rather than just sustaining it where we’re at.”
So what can you do with all this information the next time you’re wandering through the local Whole Foods? You can use these labels to vote with your dollars, deciding what foods best match up with your priorities and values. As Pincoffs put it, “There are a lot of people between you and your food, so it’s hard to know who to trust. And there are magnificent people who are doing good work taking care of their slice of earth, who are worthy of support. Because it does matter. Everything is impacted by food, by what you put in your body. And you put things in your body at least three times a day, sometimes more, so these decisions are important”
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SXSW 2017, Caesare Assad, Chris Dahlander, Imran Charania, Yareli Esteban, Jane Francisco, Jennifer Bonuso, Dana Gunders, Sam Kass, Candace Queen, Elle Simone, Syreeta Gates, Darian Harvin, Brian Frank, Sue McCloskey, Melissa Abbott, David Rosenberg, Michelle Davis, Mick Taranto, Padma Lakshmi