5 Videos That Will Change How You Think About Food: Part One

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The best of the best from this year's TEDx Manhattan conference. First up: the Urban Design Lab's Michael Conard on eliminating food deserts.

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This February, TEDx Manhattan—an independently organized local version of the esteemed TED conference—brought together a crowd of organic food advocates, entrepreneurs, chefs, and others who care about issues of food access and sustainability for a day of talks related to the theme "Changing the Way We Eat." (You might recall our live-tweeting from the journalists' table in a back corner of the Prince George Ballroom.) As I imagine is the case at all TED events, some talks adopted a preaching-to-the-choir tone and covered relatively familiar ground (commodity crop subsidies, the health risks of industrial agriculture, and so on), while others surprised, refreshed, or offered new and inspiring ways of thinking about—and, ideally, solving—old problems.

And now, finally, the talks are all finally online. Over the next several days, I'll be highlighting the favorites that stand out in my mind more than three months later—the speakers who surprised, refreshed, or thought anew the most.

1. Michael Conard, "Rebuilding our Food System Infrastructure"


The health consequences of "food deserts"—which the USDA defines as "urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food"—are one of the biggest conversation topics in the food world right now. Rarely have I seen anyone talk about the issue with as much intelligence and clarity as Michael Conard.

To be sure, there are a lot of smart ideas out there for dealing with the problem. A noteworthy one is the Double Value Coupon Program from the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which subsidizes farmers' market purchases for low-income families by doubling the value of food stamps used at participating markets. (Chef and Wholesome Wave president Michel Nischan has written about the organization's programs on our site here and here; for another idea, see Hank Cardello's piece about busing people from food deserts to supermarkets.)

But Conard, the assistant director of the Urban Design Lab, part of Columbia University's Earth Institute, doesn't bring a standard perspective to the discussion. Many people talk about food deserts in terms of local initiatives or city-level policies (how to encourage people to build more supermarkets, for example). Conard takes a much broader approach, arguing that food deserts are actually an infrastructure problem. Here, he offers a theory of how we could make the entire country healthier by creating regional "food hubs" that would completely redefine the way food is distributed.

Image: Urban Design Lab and MIT Collaborative Initiatives

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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