Ten Questions with Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice President of the James Beard Foundation

From foodtank.com by Mitchell Davis
Ten Questions with Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice President of the James Beard Foundation

Food Tank, in partnership with American University, is hosting the 2nd Annual Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. on April 20–21, 2016. 

This two-day event will feature more than 75 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, 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 Mitchell Davis, the Executive Vice President of the James Beard Foundation (JBF), who will be speaking at the summit.

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

Mitchell Davis (MD): I have always been interested in food, literally since I was a baby. In elementary school, I would pretend that I was sick so that I could stay home and watch cooking shows (which were only aired during the daytime in those days). In high school, I worked in a butcher shop and started a soup and catering company. I threw elaborate dinner parties for family and friends. As college approached, I wanted to be a chef, but that wasn’t cool for a kid from a middle-class Jewish family. The deal was hotel school. During college, I spent a year in Paris and that was a tremendously eye- and palate-opening experience. I really became obsessed with food and wine, à la française. And I did a stage for a month at La Tour d’Argent. After college, I spent a year cooking in Italy and then came back to write about food.

Although it may seem strange, it took some time before I came to realize food isn’t just about flavor and culture; it is also about agriculture. Gastronomy, at least as it was appreciated in the United States, didn't take the connection of food to land into account in those days. It was about 10 years ago, while I was in graduate school, that I started to understand the larger food system, the importance of agriculture, and the way that our individual and collective decisions impact that system. Increasingly, the world of food is coming to put all the pieces together. What’s so exciting about this convergence is that both our food and people’s understanding of their role in the food system is improving.

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

MD: I don’t love the metaphor that the food system is broken. I think it’s a system we have created; it was intended to do a lot of things and solve many problems, from address undernutrition to stimulate economic development. And now we need it to do some other things. Fast.

I think it’s important for us to rebalance the way money flows through the food system. So little goes to farmers, so much to middlemen and marketers. I think that we have fooled ourselves into thinking that convenience and variety mean ever-more processing. And we process our food to a greater extent than most other countries, for reasons I don’t understand. (I read a lot of labels when I travel.) At the same time, I think we have to stop demonizing large companies. They are going to be part of the solution. When it comes to sustainability, efficiencies, and economies, they are often on the cutting edge, understanding the impact of climate change and other challenges better than anyone and needing to find a business case to make solutions that work. I think that when we sit down together and figure out what our collective values are, we can find solutions that will surprise us. But we have to be honest and transparent. We need to call our motivations what they are, even when—no, especially when—they are mostly about profit. And we need consumers to step up to participate actively, choosing products from producers who are doing things right. I don’t think the customer is always right. Customers need to appreciate the expertise of others sometimes. And we all need to focus on quality.

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

MD: I am most excited by the way mobile technology can enable small-hold farmers to have access to services that only the biggest farmers used to be able to afford, from weather forecasting to transaction capabilities. I think mobile allows for a new type of cooperative that can rebalance power and positively impact the flow of money in a more even way. In some ways, the convenience of mobile technology helps level economies that were formerly only available at scale. This is a good thing for everyone.

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

MD: There are many food heroes, but there are two I have to give credit to. First, Marion Nestle, who reached out to me when I was a very young writer, writing about gastronomy, with a nod to other food issues. When I think back, that drink we had really changed my life. She invited me to join her advisory board at New York University, which was creating the food studies program. She encouraged me to sign up for (and complete) graduate school. I owe a lot to her. Second is Karen Karp, with whom I’m fortunate to be able to work with on many programs at JBF, including our annual Food Conference. Karen has forced me to see other sides of food beyond flavor, to understand the system and the role business and policy play. I have been reluctant, but she has introduced me to ideas and to people who have changed how I think and how I am in the food world. There are many others, too.  

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

MD: I think food—good food—is the most democratic of all art forms. It is so rewarding and satisfying both to cook and to eat. I have always believed that if we take the time to focus on what we eat and what it tastes like, we will make better decisions on how it is produced. I also think a focus on quality, at every level and in every thing, will help us to evolve the system we have. I am inspired by travel to places that find different solutions to similar problems. We really all have the same problems. But with different values and different resources, we find different solutions. There is a lot of inspiration out there, even in the midst of frustration.

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

MD: In order to keep food cheap, we have emptied all of the other value from food: nutrition, equity, respect. I think we have to put those values back into food and find a way to account for them so that we rebalance the system.

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

MD: I’d like people to cook again. And I don’t mean order little kits with everything ready and measured, wrapped in plastic and cardboard, and shipped across the country. I mean cook from ingredients that aren’t wrapped, that you picked up on your way someplace else. In the quest to make food “interesting” and more “convenient,” we have sort of demonized it instead. We’ve had the opposite effect. I can stop at the market on the way home from work and have dinner ready in 15 to 30 minutes. And I tell you it is better than most food you can find in restaurants. Every culture has a way to feed itself quickly, inexpensively. Most traditional cooking minimizes waste and uses unprocessed, sustainable ingredients. We have created a false economy of time and money around convenience. Look at spaghetti aglio e olio. Three ingredients. Five if you count salt and pepper. Six with a pinch of hot pepper. Seven with a grating of cheese. Ten minutes. Two or three bucks. And with quality ingredients, deeply satisfying and delicious. Everyone has time for that.

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

MD: Eat less meat.

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

MD: Re-regionalization of the food system, with production and distribution hubs established around the country, perhaps somehow enabled by mobile technology (or whatever’s coming next).

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

MD: Immigration reform. 

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 livestream HERE.

To join us at Food Tank's São Paulo, Brazil Summit in September 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Sacramento, CA Summit on September 22–23, 2016, please click HERE. To join us at Food Tank's Chicago, IL Summit on November 16–17, 2016, please click HERE

Want to become a sponsor of the Food Tank Summit? Please click HERE

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Want to watch videos from last year's Food Tank Summit? Please click HERE

Sponsors for this year's Food Tank Summit in Washington, D.C. include: Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Chaia DC, Chipotle, Clif Bar, D.C. Government, Driscoll's, Edible DC, Elevation Burger, Fair Trade USA, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Global Environmental Politics Program of the School of International Service, Greener Media, Inter Press Service, Leafware, Niman Ranch, Organic Valley, Panera Bread, and VegFund. 

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