Debate: What Gives a Food Summit Fire and Light

There were both at The Atlantic's Food Summit—and a bracing mixture of conviction, pragmatism, and idealism. You can still watch and listen for yourself.


Tuesday's Atlantic Food Summit was a high point of the year, as it was last year and we intend to make it every year. It's easy to convene gatherings of like-minded people. I go to, and participate in, many, and both enjoy and learn from them. Informative and varied as those often are, it's much harder to bring together people with roughly equivalent expertise and standing in their fields, abilities to forcefully advocate for their positions—and sharply diverging points of view—and ask them to engage with each other in front of an audience on exactly the fields where they have the least common ground.

But this is Washington! And this is The Atlantic, where a contrarian skepticism, desire to inform, and need to understand conflicting points of view have always been the guiding forces of our articles, both in the printed magazine and on They're the guiding forces of our AtlanticLIVE events, too: the gathering of not-necessarily-like minds is the reason AtlanticLIVE calls them "Summits," and our sponsors welcome and encourage the interchange of ideas. (Just as advertisers know the subject range their ads will appear beside but know that editorial decisions are the magazine's alone, sponsors of our events know that the evaluation and choice of speakers is our responsibility.)

So the day was full of the kind of lively debate and healthy disagreement that helped give birth to the magazine—and, at the Summit, might have widened the horizons of many people in the room and the many more who, gratifyingly, followed on our live webcast. Happily, that stream is still available for viewing. I hope you'll take part in the day at your own convenience.

We've already had terrific summaries on the Life channel of Deputy USDA Secretary Kathleen Merrigan's morning keynote address, by Dan Fromson, the channel's editor, and our frequent contributor Rebecca Greenfield on the differing views of the correlation between soda consumption and obesity and the utility of a soda tax as expressed by Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, and Zeke Emanuel, who needs no introduction to many Life channel readers.

This morning Dan summarizes the most contentious of the panels, on sustainability—the one that most engaged me, and not just because I moderated it. In helping the AtlanticLIVE team choose panelists, I was struck by the extremely different ways passionate people use the term "sustainability." The ends might be broadly agreed on—conservation of finite resources for current and future generations. But the means by which different people and entire non-profit and for-profit companies want to reach it—biotechnology or organic farming—are radically different.

As the particularly heated exchanged between Gary Hirshberg, of Stonyfield Farms, and Nina Fedoroff, of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, showed, the positions are entrenched. And yet I was struck by the common ground they might not have listened for but I heard, for example that "modern," to use Fedoroff's preferred term, seeds are too expensive, and farmers all over the world need ready access to them. (The differences start over patents on seeds, and catch fire around the enforcements of those patents.) And, as it coursed through almost every exchange, the subject of water and the near-term limitations on it pose a more severe and immediate problem than how to feed the world's growing population. (Near-term plug: Buy Charles Fishman's new, very interesting, absorbingly written book on water, The Big Thirst.)

These were the flashiest debates, and they brought some new light as well as heat to well-established disagreements. Listen for the judicious summaries of the differing positions by Molly Jahn, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and her essential call for adding the "environmental balance sheet," similar to Hirshberg's call to include externalities, in any discussion of sustainability. Jahn also mentioned a fresh-as-of-last-week coalition of growers usually on opposite sides of the table: industrial or, as Sarah Alexander, of the Keystone Center gently told us to call it, "commodity" agriculture, and small farmers, who know they need to share information and unite to save resources and keep farming. The group is just forming and will soon lay out a strategy.

But I hope you won't miss the quieter but no less current and interesting (if less contentious) talks I had with Michael Taylor, Sam Kass, and Alice Waters. As always, and as he does on the Life channel, Taylor, the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the Food and Drug Administration, makes complicated policy seem straightforward and comprehensible when he talks about it in his clear, plainspoken way. So I hope you'll listen to him, particularly on the historic importance of the Food Safety Modernization Act and—the big question now—what funds the FDA currently has and might soon have to implement it. As the FDA does on its dedicated site, with its long and good FAQ, Taylor placed special emphasis on the act's new supervision of imported foods, and the responsibility for food safety it puts on both exporters and importers.

Kass, the White House chef and Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, started with an update on the First Lady's Let's Move campaign. I asked what he was hoping would have the most impact, and he said,

Certainly the Walmart commitments around reducing the cost of fruits and vegetables and making sure that the healthy items are at least as close to being the same price as less healthy items, for example wheat bread versus white bread. Why should whole wheat bread be any more expensive than white bread? They're really going to try to work to make those prices the same. As well as reducing sodium and sugar where possible, [in] some pretty dramatic numbers. We feel really good about that.

A main theme in their current work is access to healthy food:

We're learning more about the cost of food and that its impact is not just on consumption but is also directly related to BMI. The research is starting to show—and we'll see where it lands—that higher costs of healthy food which can put it out of reach even if it's physically in a neighborhood. If a family can't afford it, it might as well not be there. That impacts weight and impacts health.

The USDA has identified 6500 food deserts. And so we will be looking to work with nonprofits and with local and regional government. Obviously the federal government has a limited role to play, but a role [nonetheless], and [we're working with] retailers and people in the private sector to see how we can get better food for families at affordable prices.

There's more, and it's all interesting—and shows what a very wide, very long path the First Lady and her team have laid out for themselves.

And Alice was at her most eloquent and inspirational. As I said in my introduction to her really good speech, it's tough with Alice: people have made up their minds about her, and as a debate in our own pages has shown, that opinion is usually that she's a precious idealist whose utopian ideas work only in Berkeley and other oases of smug enlightenment. But the closer you get to both her and the Edible Schoolyards she and the Chez Panisse Foundation have created, the faster you see, as people who've worked in them and the head of the New Orleans Edible Schoolyard attest, these are pragmatic places that improve not just children's understanding of food but their confidence in themselves and their interest in learning.

Alice came to Washington—"like Mr. Smith," she said as she started—to put forward her new utopian scheme: free universal school lunch:

Now imagine what it would mean for agriculture and rural economies if every school and university had a lunch program that served its students only local products that had been sustainably farmed. Twenty percent of the population of this country is in school. If all these students were eating together and consuming local food, agriculture would have to change overnight to meet the demand. Domestic food culture would change too, because people would grow up learning how to cook affordable, wholesome, and delicious food. Think of that. Good food would become a right and not a privilege.

She acknowledged a few of the, oh, inconvenient obstacles that might stand in the way:

To make this a reality, we need more pilot programs at all levels. When these pilots are good enough we will have the momentum and best practices to seek the mandate and the public funding to make them a reality throughout this country. This will cost money. Maybe the greatest obstacle we're going to encounter is learning to pay the real cost of food, which means to pay upfront and learning to pay a good living to the farmers and the ranchers and the dairymen who are preserving the precious resources of our planet and nourishing us at the same time.

As I knew they would, her ideas and her hopes tied together the themes of the day, particularly those farmers—she wanted more of them in the room, and she'll get them—and resources we began the day talking about. And she ended on a note of idealism and hope.

Idealism and hope—they're every bit as crucial as pragmatism and eyes-open realism. We got both, as we'll keep on getting in both the magazine and at our Summits. With, as always, bracing advice and dissent.