This article was originally published in the April 2017 Princeton Echo.
‘If you eat, this conference is for you” was the call to action for those of us who attended an all-day gathering on February 17 at Princeton University. “Changing Climate, Changing Appetites” brought together a group of experts to discuss the thorny issues behind how to nourish an exploding global population while protecting the earth and safeguarding its finite resources. The conference — free and open to the public — was mounted by Princeton Studies Food, an umbrella organization at the university that brings together faculty, alumni, students, and staff to address these critical issues.
The panels consisted of scholars and experts drawn from Princeton and other universities, the national food industry, government policy and food trade organizations, and Princeton students. Participants included Princeton-area farmer Reuwai Mount Hanewald of Terhune Orchards, who moderated “Changing Taste: Producing Sustainability for the Plate,” and restaurateur Constantine Katsifis, who owns the Americana Diner in East Windsor and who was a member of that same panel.
Although students comprised about 50 percent of the audience, it was also rife with food activists and hospitality-industry professionals from around the area. Since each of the day’s five panels allowed for robust question-and-answer sessions, the opinions of these local experts added to the lively debate and solutions-oriented discussions. Afterwards I polled some of the professionals by phone and e-mail for what they consider the main takeaways from the conference, which included discussions on the behavior science behind changing people’s appetites and the role of marketing, advertising, politics, and policy-making in doing so.
One of my own takeaways was the insupportability of producing and consuming grain-fed beef, coupled with a projected growth in consumption worldwide over the next two decades. This was by no means new information to me, but the dire statistics are inescapable, as presented throughout the day and in a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), “Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future,” that had been offered online as background reading in preparation for the conference. When I reached out for comments, I mentioned that by the end of the day I had sworn to remove beef from my diet. (I had stopped making beef dishes at home, but still ordered it at restaurants. No more. Mind you, I have no illusions that my personal choice will make a whit of difference other than to ease my conscience.)
As you will see, my correspondents differ one from another in what they took away from the full range of panels and panelists. But almost everyone mentioned one of the most unexpected and unique aspects of the conference: lunch! The conference organizers had partnered with chef Jerry Luz of the campus dining department to produce a “lunch-and-learn” menu that reflected and provided information on some of the key agricultural and environmental issues surrounding food production and consumption that were under discussion.
The most innovative aspect was a tasting of four kinds of meatballs. We attendees were asked to fill our plates with those and other options from a buffet outside the auditorium and then return to our seats to consume it. The menu focused on plant-forward dishes like hummus, quinoa, roasted vegetables, and fruit salad, but also included the bite-size meatballs. We then took an instant survey using our smartphones to rank the meatballs. The choices were all-beef, beef with whole grain, all-bean and vegetable (vegan), and salmon. Interestingly, beef with whole grain was the crowd favorite and served to reinforce the point that it doesn’t have to be onerous to make small but impactful changes in diet and eating patterns.
For Karla Cook, co-founder and coordinator of Princeton Studies Food (as well as founder of Princeton School Gardens Co-op), the lunch-and-learn was the most profound part of the conference she helped organize. The concept for the lunch, she writes, “grew out of Professor Dan Rubenstein’s idea to have our lunch match principles of the WRI report co-authored by Tim Searchinger.” Both men are lecturers at Princeton, and both were participants in the first panel of the day, “Framing the Challenge.”
Cook writes: “I found inspiration for the menu in cuisines of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, then worked with chef Jerry Luz and Smitha Haneef (executive director of campus dining) on the details. The meal directly connected academics to food and to pleasure and then looped back to academics” — three students researched the environmental impact of the lunch’s three main ingredients — chickpeas, beets, and lentils — and produced posters about them.
Kim Rizk, co-owner of Jammin’ Crepes in Princeton, addressed my no-more-beef stance in her response. “I rarely eat red meat so I have no hesitation to eliminate it completely — this I plan to do. We do not have any beef on our restaurant menu — never have — and our focus has always been towards vegetable-forward options. In fact, more than 50 percent of our menu is vegetarian-friendly. We also provide vegan options and we have plans to continue to grow in this direction as well. My biggest takeaway is a sense of responsibility I feel both as a restaurateur and a mother and wife to provide delicious menu options that eliminate the desire for beef as well as other meats.”
Pam Parseghian, chef-instructor and former food writer and editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, named the vegan meatball her favorite, despite being an avowed beef lover. She writes that the panel discussions, “were awesome, interesting, and compelling. I’m frightened for the future, but also fear the problem is greater than I can fix. I was so overwhelmed hearing all the information. I felt, what can one cooking teacher do?” But Parseghian is, in fact, doing her part through the classes she teaches at youth correctional facilities in conjunction with a program at Mercer County Community College.
Parseghian also found the contribution by Constantine Katsifis of the Americana Diner of interest. As a speaker on the panel “Changing Taste: Producing Sustainability for the Plate,” he shared some of the sustainability actions he has successfully implemented. The Americana menu no longer automatically pairs fries with sandwiches; instead offering salad, soup, or other sides. The consumption of the less-healthful fries plummeted from 100 percent to 25 percent, he reports. Other changes include swapping out commercial ketchup, which contains high fructose corn syrup, with housemade roasted tomato condiment and serving housemade maple butter (made with real maple syrup) rather than artificial pancake syrup.
Katsifis also explained how he affords to buy local grassfed beef, despite its being “500 times more expensive than commercial.” The secret? “We reduced the size of the patty — the portion was too large to begin with,” he said. The grassfed burger adds only $1 to the per-plate charge. “I will go and taste the grassfed burger,” Parseghian promises, “even though I typically prefer the taste of corn-fed beef.”
Lorette Pruden, manager of the Montgomery Farmers Market and co-founder of the Montgomery Business Association, admits to having “a downbeat and an upbeat takeaway. The downbeat one is that at least one respected scholar believes that there is no way that the farming practices that sustained humanity for literally eons can feed us in the coming times. And that we might starve to death before we figure out what to do.
“The upbeat one is that there are people who are doing practical work — farming organically, growing vertically, using urban gardens — whose opinion it is that we already have enough arable land to feed the planet (and don’t need to cut down more forest), if we don’t absolutely destroy the land with current practices.”
During one Q&A session, Pruden elicited applause by suggesting that more home cooking could be part of needed changes. “Not as the only solution for large groups of people or time-pressed working families every night,” she writes, “but for the good of connections to our own nutritional needs, to each other and to our Mother Earth, and to the pure joy and art of it.”
Like Karla Cook, Pam Mount — co-founder and co-owner of Terhune Orchards; Lawrence Township council person (and former mayor); past president of the New Jersey Agricultural Society; and a founder of Sustainable Lawrence — was heartened by the student participation.
“What’s most impressive is how much these Food Studies at Princeton activities are student-driven. That, and the bringing together of experts in so many fields, including public planning. Not only is it interesting that this group of people want to get to the facts, but that the university is lending its considerable resources to it.”
Among the speakers who particularly impressed Mount was Mark Shepherd, a farmer, permaculture advocate, and author of Restoration Agriculture. He runs New Forest Farms, a 110-acre perennial agricultural savanna in Wisconsin. He described his farm as using animals “as tools — eating grass, for example — rather than as food” and believes we must think in terms of whole ecological systems for producing food, including encouraging trees, shrubs, vines, canes, perennial plants, fungi, and lichen both horizontally and vertically. “Every single human society that has relied on annual crops for staple foods has collapsed,” he writes in his book, while the natural, perennial ecosystems he advocates “imitate nature in form and function while still providing for our food, building, fuel, and many other needs.”
Mount identified with that kind of thinking. “That’s what we do on our 200 acres of diversified crops — we grow over 50 varieties,” she says. “Small farms, small businesses are the ones who are super-creative, who are hiring everybody.”
She used as an example giant agri-conglomerates that use million-dollar combines to reap their mono-culture crop. “It takes only two drivers!” Mount says. “If they would convert all those thousands of acres to the truck-farm model — growing tomatoes, peppers, etc. — they would need many workers, as well as more diverse processing and handling facilities and storage and transportation methods.”
“The question is how to make it so that people can make a living on these preserved farms,” she says. “In my experience with Sustainable Lawrence, we found if you give them grants — even grants as small as $2,000 — they’ll achieve it!”
Fran McManus is a freelance writer and educator focused on the sensory, social, cultural, and economic relationships that define and shape community. She is the longtime marketing manager for the Whole Earth Center and works with the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative. Like Pam Mount, she appreciated Mark Shepard’s perspective. “One thing that was barely discussed, except by Mark Shepard, is land reclamation, which I think has to be included in our thinking about the future of food production worldwide. As a follow-up to the conference, I’ve ordered (and am eager to read) his book.”
Overall, McManus found the conference “well thought out and planned. The impact of beef was certainly the overriding theme and the stats on land and water use in meat production were sobering. I attended this year’s American Grassfed Association conference where there was a lot of hope and research interest in the benefits that grazing animals bring to carbon sequestration and land restoration — as well as the nutritional quality of meats produced in grass-based systems. So, I was heartened to hear some speakers at the Princeton conference voice support for the use of pasture-based systems for beef production.”