Perhaps you’ve noticed it by now: The James Beard Foundation isn’t just about placing chefs on a pedestal so that we can admire their many contributions to making our tummies happy. The New York City organization has gradually and deliberately entered into far weightier issues, from food systems to food safety to food leadership.
The latest evidence is the just-announced James Beard Foundation Food Conference, set for Oct. 17 and 18 in New York. This year, the by-invitation-only conference will bring together chefs, activists and thinkers to discuss better ways to build trust between consumers and the companies that supply them with food. You’ll be able to watch the conference online on the foundation’s Web site.
“The thing that we kept hearing, no matter what the challenge or obstacle was, was that there was a lot of trust issues — or distrust issues,” says Mitchell Davis, executive vice president of the Beard Foundation, who organized various roundtables across America to determine the conference’s ambitious agenda. There was both distrust between companies, Davis adds, and between consumers and companies.
The conference agenda will focus on topics such as “GMOs and the Science of Distrust” and “That Organic Free Range Heritage Chicken Was Engineered by Man.” Such provocative titles are meant to emphasize that the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” is sometimes not as clearly defined as those on the opposing sides of an issue may lead you to believe.
At one point in American history, Davis notes, food scientists and major food companies offered solutions to feed an ever-expanding country with more free time on its hands. “Those solutions,” he adds, “created a whole new mess of problems that we now have to address.”
But science and big business are not necessarily the enemies. “Agriculture is the interaction of man and nature,” Davis says. “There’s always a technology thing there.”
And yet, Davis says big companies need to better grasp the idea that “food is not like every other manufactured product.” Food “isn’t something you can produce and make the most money,” he says. “Decisions based on money with food don’t always lead to the best decisions.”
His hope is that people who view complex food issues in only black and white terms will start to notice shades of gray. “If this roomful of people leaves with that understanding,” he says, “I think we will have made some progress” toward building trust.
This is the foundation’s third annual Food Conference, and it comes on the heels of the Chefs Boot Camp for Policy & Change last month, when 15 notable toques were taught how to lend their voices to various food issues. (Read Mike Isabella’s take on the boot camp here.)
“We used to say that what we did was shine a spotlight on the men and women . . . who made American food culture so wonderful,” Davis says about the foundation. “But now that [chefs] have the celebrity and fame, they want to do something with it. They are increasingly asked to participate in the large conversations.”