I just tuned in to Jamie Oliver's TED Prize acceptance talk on CNN.com and got involved in a lively debate with my chef significant other, John, about this: Can one man's words transform the way America eats? In summary, Oliver's wish was as follows: "I wish for your help to create a strong, sustainable movement to educate every child about food, inspire families to cook again and empower people everywhere to fight obesity." The sustainable food movement in the U.S. is starting to take off in major metropolitan areas, but are we at a tipping point at which we'll actually start making significant improvements?
Forever the PR person, I represent the "pro" side of the argument: Words (supported by the needed actions) can change our world. Jamie Oliver has the celeb firepower and connections needed to raise awareness of the horrifying food problem our nation is facing right now. Books like Fast Food Nation and movies like Food, Inc. seem to reach a demographic of people who already care and are motivated to change the current food crisis. However, "mainstreaming" the sustainable food cause needs to happen on network TV, with known personalities, in communities that need to learn how to manage long-term, transformative change. I firmly believe that the right message, stated in the right way, to the right audience has the power to make a difference.
Representing the more cynical side is John, the actual food practitioner between the two of us. (I burn things and over-salt, which does not qualify me as an expert in the cooking department.) He orders his meat from a company, Niman Ranch, which touts sustainable, humane farming practices. The other day he recieved a cut of corned beef that expired. In 2008. In his opinion, food companies can talk about being sustainable, but the bottom line will always get in the way of good intentions. The only way to know exactly where your food is coming from is to get it from a farm or grow/raise it yourself, which unfortunately is not a possibility for the majorty of folks in the U.S. So how to create a "sustainable" option that is truly scalable to the masses remains a big question mark.
Deeper than our conversation lies the problem: Messages, words, and even proper education are great, but can the "big food" companies step up and be transparent about the way they source and process our food, and will we be equipped with the tools to know the difference between clever labeling and reality?