Takeaways From the 2010 Kellogg Foundation Food & Community Gathering

I was excited to be included at this year's W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Community Networking Meeting, held from April 27 - 29 in Chandler, Arizona. Even before I got there, I knew I was going to be able to meet the people behind lots of amazing food-related projects and websites, hear about their progress, and connect on important issues. Advance materials from the Kellogg Foundation informed me that:

Food & Community is based on the precept that all segments of a community must work together to surround children with healthy food and routine physical activity in the places they live, work, and play.

Given the foundation's focus, I was not surprised to see that the group they'd gathered together included lots of teenagers, teachers, and community workers focused on getting kids into gardens and onto farms. By unfortunate coincidence, Arizona's bill SB1070, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23 (less than one week before the conference started), gave the gathering an unintended political charge. According to the LA Examiner:

[T]he new legislation is a concern for analysts who affirm it will generate unprecedented racial profiling that will as well impact legal foreign workers, legal residents, tourists, and even American citizens, whose physical appearance might fit the ‘sketch’, or seem ‘suspicious’ for local law enforcement.

The new legislation, whose specific target is illegal immigrants, forbids authorities from releasing anyone found guilty until the full sentence is served, forces them to pay court costs and an additional fine of at least $500 for the first offense, and $1,000 for a second or subsequent conviction. Any second violation of the law would be reclassified as a felony.

SB 1070 additionally targets day laborers by making a class 1 misdemeanor for anyone to "pick up passengers for work" even if out of public view; making clear it would penalize anyone seeking work at a day labor site, and also those contractors who hire them.

Many people believe Arizona's SB1070 to be a license to conduct racial profiling. In the context of the Kellogg gathering, focused on making our food systems fair and just, this legislation could not be ignored. It lingered in the air and was invoked several times, by several speakers.

But the conference was about more than one single issue. Here are a few of my favorite takeaways:

Our food system is racist, classist, and unjust

To say that our food system is unjust has almost become cliche. But, although I've heard the statement often enough to believe that it's true, I'll admit that I don't always take the time to think about what the words "unjust food system" mean. Fortunately, this was the main focus of this year's conference, so I got more than an earful. For example:

  • Many of the people who grow our food are illegal immigrants. Our food system depends on this labor - slave labor in many situations - to keep prices down. Most immigrant farmers make far less than the minimum wage and share homes and bedrooms with many co-workers and families. They are exposed to pesticides constantly. They get sick, but they don't have the kinds of jobs that provide sick days.
  • Poor areas in our country are lined with fast food restaurants, but until recently, very few convenience stores in these areas carried any fresh food at all. With the help of organizations like the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and People's Grocery, this is starting to change.
  • 50% of all PIMA Indians (who had a special place at the Kellogg gathering) are diagnosed with diabetes by the time they turn 35.

Gail C. Christopher, Vice President for Programs at the Kellogg Foundation, gave the conference's most moving talk on the subject. "We need to be able to communicate the complexity of our situation," she said. "but right now our collective psychosis needs us to deny the pain we inflict on one another, and it's this psychosis that makes us sick as a country. Until we recognize this, we will never get better."

As if to underline the point, Gail continued, "Race is a social construct. It does not exist biologically. The human genome project has proven that we are all 99.9% the same [...] We can say that the new profiling legislation in Arizona is not racism, but I don't see any walls going up between the U.S. and Canada."

Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA, surprised me with a few compelling words as well, saying "[Slow Food] was founded on the idea of voting with our forks, but it's become clear to me over the course of the past few days that many places have no polling station, and that voting with our forks is woefully inadequate. And that changes what Slow Food needs to do."

Detroit's Malik Yakini put it even more simply: "There is no food justice without social justice."

Elizabeth UElizabeth UMany of those who can afford to choose better food don't

I was blown away by talks by Slow Money's Woody Tasch, RSF Social Finance's Elizabeth U, and Michael Shuman (author of Small Mart). These three powerful thinkers talked about where our money goes and how important it is for us to invest in things we feel good about.

IATP Food and Society Fellow Elizabeth U was particularly compelling, noting that "we spend our days and nights working in this movement, and then we invest the money we make in things that go against our beliefs. [Instead] We need to know where our money is going and what it supports, from the coffee we buy to the money we put in our savings and retirement accounts."

Woody Tasch noted that millions of people want to invest in things they feel good about, things that have a good return with social benefits. "We're on the cusp of a generational shift in the way people think about investments," Tasch said - and Slow Money is one way to help move things along.

At a conference where so much of the emphasis was - rightly - on the current, unjust food system, I left especially intrigued by the question of why those of us who can afford - and have access to - good food choose over and over again not to eat it. I also left hopeful, because many of us have the money, the interest, and the ability to make change happen quickly in this area.

Children are our future, and so our their teachers

It was fun to see and listen to students representing terrific farm to school organizations from around the country (like Food What?! and Food Corps). Students often seem wonderfully unaware of the complexity of our systems, restrictions, and laws, and this makes them the perfect people to move the movement forward - they're not yet jaded like the rest of us, and they believe in fundamental, sweeping, earth-shaking change. We need some of that, for sure.

We also need these motivated students to listen to the terrific thinkers who've come before them, people like Will Allen, whose Growing Power has affected millions of lives in an outside of its Milwaukee, WI headquarters. It's not enough for our youth to grab the ball and run with it. In many cases, they will be able move the ball forward more quickly if they understand where we are and how we got here. We need to find ways to engage kids, to help them learn from our experience without dampening their idealism and energy.

On the second day of the Kellogg gathering, the foundation released the results of their school lunch survey. The results were compelling, if not all that surprising:

A majority of Americans believe nutrition in local school meals falls far short of what children need, a new survey finds. And the foods people most associate with school meals – pizza, chicken nuggets and hamburgers – are the same foods they believe should be cut drastically from school menus.

Moreover, the survey finds near-universal agreement that childhood obesity is a problem or crisis, and that improving the health of American children requires communities to prioritize access in schools to fresh produce and exercise [...]

Key findings include:

  • 55 percent of Americans – and 63 percent of parents of school-age children – described the nutritional quality of local school food as "poor" or "only fair."
  • The top five items that came to mind when asked about school food are all high in fat or sodium: pizza; hamburgers; French fries/tater tots; hot dogs/corn dogs; and chicken nuggets.
  • These are the very foods Americans would like to see drastically cut from school menus. Nearly 70 percent of Americans said pizza should be served in school just once a week or pulled from menus entirely; more than 60 percent said chicken nuggets and hamburgers should be limited to once a week or removed.

If we believe that children are our future, we must do better. The need to improve school lunch is something that nearly everyone seems to agree on, which makes it the perfect "good food" topic to rally our country around.

Sometimes we try our best and still get it wrong

A woman named Pilar stood up during the closing session and said this:

I've heard a term a lot during these last few days, and it annoys me a lot. The term is "food desert." [This term is used to describe places where people do not have access to good, nutritious foods.] I live in the desert. I grow food in the desert. I believe that we can do better. We can use terms that don't undermine the traditions of our people.

For many of us, who've used this term for years without giving it a second thought, Pilar provided a sobering reminder of how much we still have to learn. I left the Kellogg conference smarter, more aware, hyper-focused, better informed, and incredibly motivated. It feels good.

Lee Zukor is the founder of Simple, Good, and Tasty. Email him at, or follow him on Twitter.