Five Questions with Ivy Ken of the George Washington University

From by Michael Halper
Five Questions with Ivy Ken of the George Washington University

Food Tank, in partnership with the George Washington University, is hosting the 1st Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington D.C. on January 21-22, 2015.

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policy makers, government officials, and students will come together for panels on topics including food waste, urban agriculture, family farmers, farm workers, and more.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Ivy Ken, Associate Professor of Sociology at the George Washington University, who will be speaking at the summit.

Food Tank (FT): What will your message be at the Food Tank Summit?

Ivy Ken (IK): School food is a major component of a sustainable food system.  While we may think of schools as the places in our neighborhoods where children go to learn, major food corporations see them as markets.  For decades, these companies have sought to increase their involvement in school food supply chains, and they have succeeded in making most school districts dependent on the products they create to meet minimum nutritional standards.  This needs to be watched.  When control over school food is ceded to major corporations, children lose.  They are served products rather than whole foods, they are divorced from the sources of their food, and they become accustomed to a diet that fosters obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.  The difficult, decentralized, dirty work of Farm To School Networks, eco-literacy programs, and policy advocates in every community is necessary to create new norms in schools that prioritize the well-being of children over the health of companies' profit margins.

(FT): How are you contributing to building a better food system?

(IK): We have to build a better food system in a range of spaces, from the garden to the boardroom to the city council chambers.  I am an active volunteer in the gardens and food initiatives in DC public schools, including the DC Farm To School Network and the FoodPrints program, which focus on developing students' ability to act as stewards of the environment.  In addition, I study the implementation of the DC Healthy Schools Act, which brilliantly incentivizes schools for providing locally-sourced, unprocessed food to their students.  Finally, I participate as a watchdog over the maneuvers of the food service management companies that dominate the DC school food scene.  This all requires vigilance, and lots of dirty hands and knees.

(FT): What are the biggest obstacles or challenges you face in achieving your organization's goals?

(IK): The influence of food companies is like an invisible juggernaut.  It is incredibly powerful and pervasive, but it flies below the radar.  Most people just don't see it, or they don't recognize its destructive force.  And this is no accident: these companies go to great lengths to keep any unpalatable activities or agendas hidden and to present to the public a pleasing, community-oriented facade.  The United States is a very pro-business kind of place, where the ability of companies to make money is understood to be an inalienable right.  Criticizing companies for going too far in this environment does not go over well, even when children's health is at stake.  To do the work of uncovering the problems companies create, and to then convince the public of the necessity to work together to keep companies' influence at a minimum, is like catching a juggernaut with your bare hands.

(FT): Who is your food hero and why?

(IK): Without a doubt, my food hero is Andrea Northup, who currently serves as the Farm To School Coordinator at Minneapolis Public Schools.  Ms. Northup brought the Farm To School Network to Washington, DC, and worked smartly and tirelessly to initiate farm-related activities in the schools here and to get these activities supported and institutionalized with policy.  She was the major force behind getting Farm To School programs build into the DC Healthy Schools Act, and has gone on to work with students in other school districts with the same level of skill and determination.  She's a school food star!

(FT): In 140 characters or less what is the most important thing we can all do to help change the food system?

(IK): Get large corporations out of the food system.

The event is SOLD OUT, but interested participants can sign up for the live-stream HERE. Or JOIN US for dinner and a reception to celebrate Food Tank's two-year anniversary on January 21st at 5:30pm EST. This event will also sell out fast, REGISTER NOW.