Ten Questions with Jonathan Pereira, Executive Director of Plant Chicago

From foodtank.com by Jacob Siegler
Ten Questions with Jonathan Pereira, Executive Director of Plant Chicago

Food Tank, in partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is hosting the 1st Annual Chicago Food Tank Summit on November 16, 2016. 

This event will feature more than 30 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for interactive panels, networking, and delicious food.

Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Jonathan Pereira, Executive Director of Plant Chicago, who will be speaking at the summit.


Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?

Jonathan Pereira (JP): My interest in the natural world probably has to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. While I grew up on the south side of Chicago, I was lucky enough to spend many summers and winters in the upper peninsula of Michigan. As an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time tinkering with ways to engage with and protect the earth. While I can’t pin my obsession with the environment to any single event, I have been witness to enough different environmental disasters such as coral bleaching, clear cutting, forest fires, heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes. Agriculture is what allowed for the creation of human “civilization”, and if not done responsibly it could be what ultimately destroys it.

FT:  What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?

JP: Consumers and producers having a direct connection to the source of their food. “Fixing”the system is a collective effort, and the collective of consumers and producers need to be well-informed.

FT:  What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?

JP: Strong partnerships between food buyers and growers/producers. More buyers, such as chefs and certain retailers, are dedicating more time and effort to work with smaller growers (especially on niche products). I am inspired by municipalities and businesses that are actively pursuing nutrient recovery. We spend so much time thinking about what goes into our products, but very little time on what happens to them after we are done with them.

FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?

JP: I have probably pulled a lot of my current thinking about my relationship to food from my family, in particular my mother and sister. My sister spent 7 years farming organically in rural New England, which also gave me a second-hand experience of the challenges of growing and selling food as a business. In addition to working full time, my mother prepared all of the meals growing up. I learned a lot about creating tasty and well balanced healthy meals from watching and helping her in the kitchen. The act of preparing food, especially when it is connected to your family’s history, can make a big impact on a child. Some of my favorite things to eat are the recipes that have been passed down through the generations on the Croatian side: orcinaca, mousakka, and walnut torte. O goodness I’ve just made myself terribly hungry.  

FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?

JP: Getting to know many different food business entrepreneurs that are not only making great products, but also considering their impact on the environment. Also: delicious food becomes even more delicious when I know it was sustainably produced. I’d like to eat more of that, please.

FT:  What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn't have to deal with?

JP: We’ve have several generations that have become more and more disconnected from the process of growing and producing food. The places where most people get food now is several times removed from the place it’s actually grown or made. A result of that is that we don’t actually conceptualize the work and resources that went in to getting that food on your plate. The abundance of food at a typical US grocery store belies the increasing risks to our food system.

FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?

JP: Waste! Over 40% of the food grown for consumption never gets eaten. While there will always be food that gets “wasted”, (assuming it’s no longer edible) we can use that waste for compost or energy production.

FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?

JP: Limit red meat in your diet! Not only is it healthier for you, but it reduces stress on the land and reduces overall GHG emissions. 

FT:  What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?

JP: A food system that focuses on regenerating the soil. Our current system seems to focus on what we can get out of the soil, and not what we are a putting back in to it (in a sustainable manner). We need an agricultural system that is designed to keep nutrients like phosphorus flowing the farm to the table and back to the farm. We get caught up in the linear system of farm-to-table and forget that cities are a net aggregator of nutrients.

FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?

JP: Let’s start with actually talking about agriculture, food security and climate change as issues.  While it would be nice if the media pushed candidates on these subject, we really shouldn't have to wait for them to ask to hear their point of view (or lack thereof). 


To find out more about the event, see the full list of speakers, and purchase tickets, please click HERE. Interested participants who cannot join can also sign up for the live-stream HERE.

To join us at Food Tank's Washington D.C. Summit, please click HERE.  

Want to become a sponsor of the Food Tank Summit? Please contact Sebastian at Sebastian@foodtank.com.

Want to suggest a speaker for one of the Summits? Please click HERE

Want to watch videos from previous Food Tank Summits? Please click HERE

Want to volunteer for a Food Tank Summit? Contact Vanesa at Vanesa@foodtank.com.

Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Chicago include: Almond Board of California, Annie’s Inc., Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Blue Apron, Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Clif Bar & Company, Driscoll's, Elevation Burger, Farmer’s Fridge, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Inter Press Service (IPS), Niman Ranch, and Organic Valley. More to be announced soon.

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