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 40 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, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.
Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Karen Lehman, Director at Fresh Taste, who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Karen Lehman (KL): My grandparents retired to a 120-acre farm in the Ozarks in the 1960s. They subscribed to Organic Gardening magazine, bought lady bugs for natural pest control, and grew the first truly great tasting tomatoes I had in my life! Their neighbors were subsistence farmers who got winter meat from deer hunting, kept a cow and a few chickens, and boiled up squirrel meat in stews. In the early 80s, I began to learn about the rest of the food and farming system when some friends and I made a documentary for PBS about women who led farm protest movements in Minnesota, at a time when farmers were paying US$6 to produce a bushel of wheat, and at harvest, earning less than US$4. I wondered if I was witnessing the death of the family farm. Shortly thereafter, I got to know Bob Rodale and worked with him at Rodale headquarters as he began developing his thinking on Regeneration—the conceptual work behind Regenerative Agriculture. And I have found hope in that work ever since.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
KL: Resolving the issue of food waste is a huge opportunity, one that is capturing the nation’s imagination. Since 40 percent of the food produced in the world is wasted, solving this issue alone will increase world food supply. States where organic waste has been prohibited from entering the waste stream have seen donations to food pantries rise as much as 30 percent. This is an issue to which everyone can make a difference, which means that grassroots communities have vital roles to play. Neighbors being neighbors and helping neighbors can accomplish much, from individual action to policy change.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
KL: I’m excited by the commercial development of perennial grains and revenue-producing cover crops. Kernza, the perennial wheat that the Land Institute has been working on for forty years, can be an important carbon sink and soil builder with its root systems extending more than 10 feet deep into the soil. Once planted, it just keeps growing and producing wheat, year after year. And if farmers can make money from the oil-seed producing cover crops the University of Minnesota is developing, there is more likelihood that farmers will adopt them. Cover crops are gateways to pasture-based and organic agriculture systems. At a time when we need rapid adoption of growing systems that protect soil and water in the context of climate change, these innovations show real promise.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
KL: Jacinto Peña is one of the founding members of La Cooperativa Esperanza de los Campesinos in Santa Fe Veraguas, Panama, a coffee producing community in the mountains. Forty years ago, campesinos were forced to sell their green coffee beans to intermediaries who took most of the value. Inspired by a Catholic priest, Father Hector Gallego, Jacinto and others formed the cooperative. Tragically, Father Gallego was kidnapped from Jacinto’s house, where he was living, and never seen again. Though devastated, the members of the co-op persevered. Having organized to pool production, they were at the mercy of the intermediaries to whom they sold their raw coffee beans. Jacinto roasted some coffee beans in a skillet in his house, sealed them in small cellophane bags over a candle, and went to other campesino families, offering them as samples. “We need our own roaster,” was his message. With one US$25,000 market rate loan, Jacinto and the members of the coop have built a US$3,000,000 enterprise which markets its own regional brand of coffee, Café el Tute, and owns a retail grocery store, a bus, and several cabs. He consults to co-ops throughout the region and still farms his own parcels, including the most spectacular collection of fruits and flowering plants in the land surrounding his house that I have ever seen!
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
KL: I lived in Mexico for four years where I worked with organizations that provided technical support to peasant farmers. At the time, there was essentially a federal land trust, the ejido system, which provided campesinos with the means to produce a significant portion of the nation’s staple foods. It was devastating to watch the destruction of that system through a constitutional amendment that would pave the way for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the resulting huge migration of people out of the countryside into the cities and into the United States. It is a constant reminder of farming communities' role in social cohesion, enormous cultural contributions, and essential function in providing food security—and how vulnerable that is in the context of the global agricultural system.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system that our parents and grandparents didn't have to deal with?
KL: Corporate concentration. During my lifetime, agriculture, with a few exceptions, has consolidated into three or four large conglomerates, depending on the sector. These were built on production systems dependent on an evolving set of chemical inputs and animal production methods that damage soil, water, and human health. The power behind these systems shapes national and global policy to an alarming degree.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
KL: The absence of a strong regenerating cohort of new farmers. We need to focus policy, practice, and market development on creating a food system that makes it worth someone’s while to produce food and earn a decent living. Land access, training, market development, cost-sharing for organic conversion, scale-appropriate, and aggregation infrastructure development, to name a few, will increase the chances for new farmers to succeed.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
KL: Eat more grains (rice, oats, barley) and pulses (lentils and beans) with local produce. The dried foods are affordable and nutritious, and make it possible to buy more produce on a tight budget.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
KL: I want the next generation to inherit agriculture production systems that protect soil and water health, promote biodiversity, and mitigate as well as adapt to climate change. Climate is the biggest issue they will face, and the capacity to produce food on a warming planet depends a great deal on our work now to make sure that high-quality soil and water are available, and that the wealth of biological diversity is enhanced.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the U.S. to address immediately?
KL: Choose a Secretary of Agriculture to continue and expand the work supporting local and regional food value chains—“Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” Choose a U.S. Trade Representative who understands the importance of smallholder farmers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and recognizes that it is in the long-term interest of the U.S. to support the world’s capacity to feed itself, rather than set out to “feed the world.”
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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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