Ten Questions with Pamela Hess, Executive Director of Arcadia Center

From foodtank.com by Lani Furbank
Ten Questions with Pamela Hess, Executive Director of Arcadia Center

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 Pamela Hess, the Executive Director of the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture (a nonprofit dedicated to creating a more equitable and sustainable food system in D.C.), who will be speaking at the summit.

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

Pamela Hess (PH): My mom, who passed away last spring. We grew up with a backyard garden with asparagus and tomatoes and beans, and spent our summers picking blackberries behind the swimming club. She was a great cook and had very strict sourcing rules: only New Jersey tomatoes and blueberries, for instance, and only in season. You grow up like that and it makes it difficult not to care about food and agriculture. And then there was The Omnivore's Dilemma, the gateway drug for most of us in the sustainable ag field. Do you think Michael Pollan minds that I just compared his book to marijuana?

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

PH: Creating more farmers out of military veterans. We need 100,000 new farmers over the next decade, and there are 250,000 new veterans every year. They are tough, practical, optimistic, great at planning, adapting, and overcoming challenges. They don't bitch – they just figure out a way to get it done if it's worth getting done. I speak from experience. We have a group of veterans training at Arcadia now for careers in [agriculture], and they are a total joy. We talked to a veteran last fall about how difficult farming can be in the heat and humidity of our Mid-Atlantic summers. He said, with perfect dryness: “I was in Fallujah in 130 degree heat for six months in 50 pounds of armor. I think I can manage.” We laughed and decided we didn't need to raise that issue again.

I have so many more things to say about other fixes. How much space do I have? OK, one more: I know, from Arcadia's experience with our Mobile Market for four years, that the main barrier that low-income people have to eating a healthful diet is resources. Put resources in their hands for great food, and make that food affordable and convenient, and everything changes. Our sales increased 400 percent over four years with basically no marketing, only word of mouth, because we accept and double SNAP and other nutrition programs. People know what to eat. They just can't afford it or find it, or they are asked to eat bruised, unappealing fruits and veggies that others have already picked over. You wouldn't eat it, neither would I. It goes the same for them. D.C. has knocked this out of the park: it introduced a program in 2014 called the Produce Plus Program, which puts US$10 in the hands of low-income people every time they come to the farmers market in the form of fruit and veggie vouchers. You wouldn't believe the lines people wait in to get these – 90 minutes, two hours, in the hot sun. It speaks to the great need, but also the great desire to feed their families well. Two hours of waiting for 10 bucks in fresh food. That should tell official Washington something.

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

PH: At the risk of talking only about Arcadia -- it's my job! -- I am really excited about the power that data can have to influence food policy. Here's what we are doing: we developed a simple, but elegant iPad-based point of sale system for our Mobile Markets. It tracks our inventory and expedites transactions, but it also captures incredibly detailed data about our customers' purchasing patterns. This is the kind of data large grocery chains and department stores hoard – it’s proprietary and valuable. We are making it available to public policy researchers and city officials so they can understand what people buy, how they buy it, and what prices they are willing to pay. Want to know what WIC moms buy at the farmers market? What SNAP customers buy? What they then reach into their pocket to pay cash for? We know. And we're using the information for the public good. We are excited to get this system in the hands of other vendors to enlarge our data set and really kick some public policy ass.

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

PH: The list is too long to outline – there are so many people doing great stuff in our area and around the country. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms probably leads the pack for me. I read about him in The Omnivore's Dilemma, then bought a bunch of his books. His common sense, genius practical approach to sustainable farming is pretty revolutionary. So I always harbored a secret worship of him. When I took the helm of a now-defunct local food magazine and got to edit his column – well, that was beyond surreal. I am pretty sure I never changed a word. So Joel. Also Mike and Molly Peterson of Heritage Hollow Farms and Molly's partner-in-words, Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows. Both are pasture-based farms. They farm with integrity and joy and teach me something important every time I am with them.

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

PH: What's more important than what we eat? And how it's grown? What impacts public health more? Our water system? Our environment? Our economy?

Everybody eats. Everybody should have the option of eating well. Virginia Woolf said it, right? It's the foundation of every other accomplishment: "One cannot think well, sleep well, love well, if one has not dined well." I'd add: or work well, or parent well, or learn well.

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

PH: The insane multitudes of processed foods and the enormous army of experts behind them -- behavioral scientists, marketers, graphic artists, food chemists, sales people -- who concoct this stuff to be exactly as appealing, ubiquitous, and cheap as possible. We barely have a chance. Will power is supposed to be enough. Guess what? It's not.

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

PH: Food access. Wash the country with great, affordable food. Make sure people have the resources to pay for it – don’t expect farmers to impoverish themselves to feed the country. Make quality food a given – easy, everywhere, the default.

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

PH: Divert US$100 a month in your household food budget from processed and industrialized food to well-raised local food. Think of the impact <<tries to do the math in head, whips out calculator>> if there are 127 million households in the United States, with each spending US$1200 additional on good food every year, and more importantly taking that US$1200 a year AWAY from terrible food, great farmers will see their fortunes increase by US$147 billion annually and Big Food's decrease by US$147 billion. That's a little over 10 percent of the food that Americans buy every year. Losing 10 percent market share would make a few companies reconsider what they are developing, pushing, and selling. I think? Someone needs to check my math.

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

PH: Let's be clear: it is high time we linked agricultural policy and public health policy. We should wipe out totally preventable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, which are caused by the kinds of food we eat and how much.

Walk into any store and look at the preponderance of what's available to buy. Most of it causes all of those diseases if you eat enough. Know what never made you fat and sick? Apples, kale, squash, pasture-raised meats and eggs. Nutritious food is on the edges of the store if it is present at all, and there is so little of it comparatively. The sheer volume of food that is bad for you – what Pollan calls "food-like substances” – stacks the deck against you. I'd like to see that ratio changed. I'd like to see stores, neighborhoods, and markets awash in great, well-grown food so it becomes the default option. Remember ‘treats?’ I got to drink soda only if we were out to dinner, which wasn't very often. The only cookies we ate we had to bake ourselves (consequently, I am a great baker). We need to relegate that food back to treats – rare, silly, fun. Not the cornerstone of our diets.

Look, I have a very privileged life – I make enough money to eat well, I know how to cook, I have many farming friends, my organization runs a farm that I work on every week during the growing season, we operate a huge number of Mobile Market stops, and I live near a farmers market and organic store (like two blocks away). But I had to shop in a big chain grocery store twice in the last couple of weeks, and both times I had a meltdown. I'd forgotten the cacophony of packaging and the confusing aisles and I couldn't find anything I would, under normal circumstances, choose to eat. I went to the frozen fish section in search of a protein for dinner and there was nothing – not a single thing – that wasn't pre-sauced, stuffed, fried. Where is all the ACTUAL FOOD? And I thought: This is too hard. No wonder we're all so fat (me too!). Who wouldn't just get a pack of hot dogs and prepped mac and cheese and call it a day? There are too many bad choices and they are so ubiquitous that soon they just seem normal. We make it too hard to find and eat actual food. I think most people just surrender. (I didn't! I found a grass-fed steak and some organic veggies and my dinner was great. It just required an existential crisis and 60 minutes of searching first.) I believe this is what we call a ‘First World problem’. But with an annual health care bill of US$500 billion for chronic diseases, I'd say it is a pretty serious one.

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

PH: Restore SNAP spending. Stop punishing poor people for being poor. Even if you think people should pull themselves up by the proverbial boot straps, only the most extraordinary can do so when they don't know where their next meal is coming from. Take food off the table by putting it on the table, and then start to address getting people out of poverty. You're never going to do it if people don't have enough good food to eat, to feel equal to the great challenges ahead of them. Come out to our Mobile Market. Meet our customers. Then talk to me about cutting SNAP.


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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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