By Bradley Googins & Philip Mirvis

A monthly installment from two of The Lewis Institute’s Social Innovation Fellows: Bradley Googins and Philip Mirvis.

Judging from the popularity of reality TV chef competitions on Hell’s Kitchen, infotainment shows about food production (The Chew), preparation (Kitchen Nightmares) and consumption (Anthony Bourdain),  and cooking tips from America’s Test Kitchen or Rachel Ray, fascination with food is at an all-time high.  This used to be the territory of gourmands and epicures.  Now, with everybody tuning in, the populist term is “Foodies.”

Those looking for hardy food-for-thought on this trend have been digesting Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma—on the “politics and pleasure of eating”—and Joel Salatin’s Folks, This ain’t Normal which proffers “a farmer’s advice for happier hens, healthier people, and a better world.” As frequent travelers, foodies, and advocates for sustainability and social innovation, we have spent the last several months as culinary tourists in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

We found plenty that “ain’t normal” but also lots of innovation underway in the journey from farm to food to you. Let’s start with the USA.

Corporate Farming ain’t Normal

Our travelogue starts with the GEL (Good Experience Live) conference April 17-19, 2013, in New York City.  The gathering featured talks about urban development through the High-Line public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side and the resurrection of Governor’s Island as a lively public space.  On rural matters, Joel Salatin (The High Priest of the Pasture) spoke about how religious faith informs sustainable agriculture at his Swoops, Virginia Polyface Farm.  He really got the crowd going, however, with a fire-and-brimstone damnation of the “Church of Industrial Foods.”

What’s wrong with food production in the USA?  According to Salatin, just about everything:  chemical fertilizers, transgenic modified seeds, toxic pesticides, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and countless other practices of corporate farms, all aided and abetted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  His point:  farmers for years relied on pasturing, manure, crop rotation, animal husbandry, and common sense to turn out safe and healthy foods.  The food production system today “just ain’t normal.”

Well, many foodies agree.  In growing numbers they (aka locovores) are turning to organic produce and to “local” food sources and eateries.  But surveys also find that many more mainstream food consumers are asking questions about and making purchasing decisions based on not only price, but also perceptions of food safety, product ingredients, animal treatment, and the reputation of the companies behind the brands that they buy.

Greener Dairies and Urban Farming

How is industry responding?  Let’s head to Detroit, Michigan where the management team of the Innovation Center of U.S. Dairy, under the leadership of Erin Fitzgerald, gathered to review annual goals and check out “urban farming.”  Her innovation team works with thousands of dairy farmers on life cycle assessments that aim to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG)  emissions by 25 percent in milk collection, production, transport, packaging, and distribution.  Another project is to put 1,300 methane digesters on dairy farms by 2020.  At this meeting, the team reviewed new animal care guidelines and progress in promoting third-party verification of humane animal care practices by farmers.

Ok, so the dairy industry is waking up to sustainability, but what’s up with urban farming?  Detroit has over 60,000 vacant parcels of land and many more (90,000) occupied by ramshackle housing.  After extensive consultations with community leaders and a close vote by the city council, investor John Hantz purchased 140 acres of abandoned city land, cleared the grounds, and began planting trees and ornamental crops.  The immediate aims, according to Hantz Farm President Mike Score, are to reduce urban blight, add color to the neighborhood in the winter and shade in the summer and, over the longer-term, sell hardwood to pay for the investment.  Although food production in this area is unlikely anytime soon, other doings in Detroit point to development of a multi-level greenhouse in an old industrial building near to the lake and the launch of indoor tilapia fish farming.  For more insights into the burgeoning local farm-to-food scene, check out the Detroit’s Eastern market and others in the area (Ann Arbor, Birmingham, Royal Oak).

Sustainable Food Laboratory

Next up was some virtual tourism where we reviewed results from the annual summit of the Sustainable Food Lab.  The mission of the Sustainable Food Laboratory, led by co-directors Hal Hamilton and Don Seville, is to “accelerate the shift of sustainable food from niche to mainstream.”  The lab’s interests encompass the fertility of soil, water and biodiversity protection, the livelihoods and practices of farmers and farm workers, energy use and waste discharge, and the quality and affordability of food.

The over 80 lab members and partners include early innovators like Ben & Jerry’s, Stonyfield Farms, and Green Mountain Coffee, corporate giants like Cargill, Aramark, H.J. Heintz, Sodexho, Starbucks, and Sysco from the U.S., food producers and purveyors such as Unilever and Marks & Spencer from abroad, and the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Catholic Relief Services, Fair Trade USA, and the Food Marketing Institute.  This mix of competitors and competing interests often find common ground in joint projects.  At the 2013 summit where attention focused on the “nuts-and-bolts” of sustainable sourcing, Dirk Jan de With, VP of Procurement Ingredients & Sustainability at Unilever remarked, “We need to make more progress in the top ten commodities. We can’t do this alone or just with suppliers. Opportunities to accelerate are all about collaboration.”

What are members collaborating on?  In various combinations they are involved in connecting small scale producers to modern markets, green farmer training projects, reducing GHG and water emissions in farm operations, food safety and sustainability certification schemes, and consumer education and engagement.  The Sustainable Food Laboratory exemplifies the kinds of multi-business and cross-sector partnering we have been writing about in recent months.  What distinguishes the sustainable food lab is the open sharing and emphasis on “action-learning” among the members.  They also get coaching on becoming more effective change agents in their organizations and industries.

Kevin Rabinovitch of Mars explained the impact in this way:  “After I go to these meetings I unabashedly use your ideas and progress as a prod for people in our organization and if you aren’t doing that too, get on it. I do this unapologetically to accelerate inspiration and energy.”

Other Innovations for Foodies

In our next blog, we will follow the trends toward sustainable farming and food production to Europe and onward to Asia.  Consider these closing thoughts for foodies on the USA scene.  We two recently attended a conference on Responsible Leadership at Northeastern University where Stu Larson, VP of Organizational Effectiveness for Panera Bread described his company’s “pay what you can” program at five Panera Cares cafes across the U.S.

At these cafes, there are no set prices for sandwiches, soups, and such.  Instead customers can make “suggested donation” for their meals but are free to pay more, less, or nothing at all.  Sure there are free riders, but theses cafes make about 70 per cent of the revenue of for-profit operations, and provide a proverbial free lunch for the indigent and homeless.  Interestingly, the company began to offer a pay-what-you-can offering (a $5.98 bowl of turkey chili) in all of its outlets in St. Louis but has since pulled this program to re-tool it.  A failed experiment?  Not at all, says Panera’s co-Chief Executive Ron Shaich, making the case that Panera learned from the experiment, will better market it in the future, and will encourage consumers to talk to one another about hunger, food prices, and healthier eating.

Finally, do you want to talk more about these matters and others pertaining to food safety and security, government subsidies, the future of family farms, and facts about over-and-under-consumption?  The Lewis Institute has a place where “food is everybody’s business.” Its Food Solution Institute (Food Sol), run by Rachel Greenberger, involves companies in small local experiments and provides a forum where erstwhile food entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas and get reactions (and maybe some funding) from food companies and venture capitalists.

Every week Food Sol hosts a community table where Babson students and faculty, as well as farmers, and business people, can share ideas, questions, and challenges.  On October 24, 2013, Babson hosts its annual Food Day where celebrated foodies and Entrepreneurs-in-Residence Andrew Zimmern and Gail Simmons will lead sessions on innovation and entrepreneurship in food production, cooking, and eating.

See you there.  Come hungry.