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Follow The Food: Ensuring Greater Transparency in our Food Supply

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

As the 2012 food and farm policy fights heat up, entrepreneurs have some lessons for Washington. These were on full display at a recent TEDx Manhattan conference, where the innovative business leaders shared how they are changing the way we eat and developing a following among consumers concerned about where their food comes from.

American consumers face extraordinary challenges in determining what is in their food and how it got to their plate.  Our industrialized and opaque food system has produced a growing number of food safety scares.  It is virtually impossible to trace a meal from farm to fork. Even well-informed consumers often can’t find healthy and sustainable food because there is insufficient local and regional infrastructure to help farmers sell their products directly to customers. The debate over the 2012 food and farm bill presents a major opportunity for policy makers to address these roadblocks and fix a system that primarily benefits agribusinesses and factory farms.

The popularity of farm-to-table eateries and growth of farmers markets are proof that consumers want local food and far more transparent supply chains. Entrepreneurs such as Karl and Cara Rosaens, the people behind RealTimesFarms.Com, have received the “right to know” message from consumers and have handed them what they want.  Their crowd-sourced online food guide featured at the TEDx event tracks food sold in restaurants and farmer’s markets back to local farms that grow the ingredients. There are 4,800 participating farms, 32,000 uploaded photos, and 11,000 menu items listed on the website. Cara wants to give farmers a voice and eaters everywhere a choice.

“We spend so much time researching a TV, but we’ll go buy a chicken anywhere,” she told tens of thousands of people watching the live webcast and the 350 people who were in the audience at the Times Center in New York City. “Without transparency, you have no choice.”

Other speakers at TEDx Manhattan making their mark in the sustainable food world included Paul Lightfoot, Chief Executive Officer of Bright Farms. He pointed out the flaws in the current produce supply chain and talked about how his business, which builds and operates local greenhouse farms in grocery stores, is changing the way fresh food gets to the customer. His creative model allows retailers to sell produce immediately after harvest, saving time and cutting storage and shipping costs.

Stephen Ritz, South Bronx school teacher and founder of Green Bronx Machine, gave an inspirational talk (watch here) on how he has improved the health, daily attendance, and academic success of high school students in one of the poorest districts through urban gardening. He has empowered them to grow edible food walls in the classroom and the fresh fruits and vegetables they harvest are served in the school cafeteria and at local shelters, where many of the kids are getting their second meal.

"When you can take kids from backgrounds as diverse as this and do something as special as this, we are really creating a moment," said Ritz.

Once the students graduate they are encouraged to sign up for a training program to join the workforce and take their entrepreneurial skills with them to plant food for others.

Such innovations are needed now more than ever as agribusiness lobbyists continue to oppose efforts to make our food supply healthier, more transparent and safer. Consumers shouldn’t be left guessing about the potential risks in their food. That’s why nearly 450 health, agriculture and environmental organizations — including the Environmental Working Group -- have partnered with the Just Label It campaign for food transparency and have called on the federal government to label genetically engineered food. Polls show that the majority of Americans want credible labels on processed food and on meat and dairy products that contain antibiotics and hormone drugs. Food supplier Applegate Farms and the popular restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill have responded to the demand and offer only antibiotic-free meats, an action that we at EWG applaud.

Lawmakers have a chance to turn around the broken system.  They can enact policies that advocate the consumption of fresh, unprocessed and nutritious food, ensure that we have an adequate food safety budget and back calls for mandatory labeling and reforms that promote eating locally.  In the meantime, we can count on these entrepreneurs and events like TEDx (watch EWG President Ken Cook’s talk from last year) that have brought a wealth of new ideas and tools that support family farmers and help consumers follow the food trail back to the farm.