Pre-dawn flight from NY; landing in Chicago; which is a foreign country to me, navigating this immense hotel, I headed to the general breakfast session of the IACP conference and straight into a conversation about the evolution of our food supply system.
There are a lot of trendy words being thrown about these days, things like ‘organic’ or ‘local’ or ‘sustainable’, or how about ‘beyond organic’? Behind all these confusing labels, there is a an awareness dawning on people that we need to eat better, have a smaller carbon footprint by eating foods closer to home, and to just respect our food sources.
Samuel Fromartz, a journalist and author, narrated the discussion panel; Jim Adams, the marketing director of Chipotle Mexican Grill, Michael Ableman is an actual farmer and founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, and Howard Brandeisky, the sacrificial lamb from Kraft Foods.
It was surprising for me to hear, but ‘organic’ food represents only 2% of the grocery business. It is a rapidly growing segment of the business, but still very small.
Chipotle is a chain operation that has seen the light. After Jim Adams learned about Nieman Farms and their organically raised meats, and saw how industrial pork producers raise their pigs, Chipotle switched over to Nieman Ranch pork. They also had to increase their prices, but found that their business actually got better. People were willing to pay more for better quality.
The Kraft representative, Howard Brandeisky, tried to explain how Kraft had already become involved in the organic food movement. He was not as persuasive as Mr. Adams from Chipotle. Kraft acquired the Back To Nature brand, and has another brand called Boca, which is all soy based products, but overall, his approach had all the genuine compassion of a GM salesman. His responses were canned, big business as usual, and smacked of “see we do organic too”. He declared that ‘the consumer’ trusts the Kraft product. Now, I don’t know what circles he travels in, but Kraft ‘cheese products’ are not what I would consider to be ‘trustworthy’. He kept talking about ‘the consumer’ as some sort of marketing invention, not as a connection with real people.
Michael Ableman was the most powerful speaker. He spoke logically; he spoke with an awareness of the everyday choices and dilemmas that an aware shopper faces. We can’t eat only local. I’ve said this before; I’m not giving up olive oil or coffee. Organic products are not always available. And he talked about the new ‘chicken or the egg’ debate: “Do I buy long distance organic, or local non-organic?” Mr. Ableman says we should honor all those producers who get off of the chemical treadmill, and if they are not certified organic, at least honor them for the attempts that they are making. He also suggested a labeling system for all produce products: skull and crossbones for the really bad stuff, a label that indicates the number of miles the product has traveled.
With a younger generation suddenly waking up to the “Inconvenient Truths” of what we have done to our planet, this dialogue was certainly a step in the right direction. We need to address our food supply issues, and the sooner we do, the healthier we will be.