Let’s talk about food

Climate change. Food waste. Obesity. Hunger.

The food system faces serious challenges—the topic of which drew more than 450 future-minded folks to Sacramento last week for the first annual Farm Tank, a two-day food and agriculture summit and spawn of the national organization Food Tank.

“We have to have some uncomfortable conversations to move forward,” said Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg.

Yup. Those definitely happened.

Nierenberg, a vegan, looked positively crestfallen when five animal rights activists stormed the stage during a sustainable protein panel, chanting, “Animals do not want to die.”

She also moved to shut down a string of intense questions targeting John Purcell, a vice president at Monsanto, who looked remarkably comfortable in the hot seat. Maybe it was his breezy, yellow Hawaiian shirt?

During her opening speech, Nierenberg acknowledged the summit drew some controversy early on. Critics weren’t pleased that Monsanto had a seat at the table, and some also spoke out against Driscoll’s presence. Farmworkers are still urging a ban of Driscoll’s, stating they only earn $6 per day picking berries. Vegan activists also demanded plant-based proteins be taken seriously, prompting Farm Tank to add a speaker from the Humane Society at the last minute. Regardless, the event sold out, and a live stream reached more than 6,000 viewers.

Of course, there was some Sacramento boosting as well, with the “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” title in full use. That also meant plenty of local speakers, including Mary Kimball of the Center for Land-Based Learning, Blake Young of the Sacramento Food Bank and Michael Passmore of Passmore Ranch. Keith Knopf of Raley’s spoke to his stores’ commitment to supporting local and urban farmers.

“Nearly 100 percent of our produce is local,” he said, which immediately brought to mind the recent opinion piece in The Sacramento Bee by Michelle Basso Reynolds and Steven Maviglio. The pair questioned the integrity of the farm-to-fork movement, specifically citing an instance inside a grocery store where asparagus from Mexico was deemed “local.” Sure enough, Knopf admitted that Raley’s stocks out-of-season produce from wherever. There will always be bananas, and they will never come from Sacramento. Coincidentally, the Farm Tank dinner served out-of-season asparagus, presumably from Mexico.

The most captivating discussions wove in social justice and immigration issues, given the majority of farmworkers in the United States are foreign-born and undocumented. Keynote speaker Saru Jayaraman, co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, delivered a passionate reality check about wages in food service. She said restaurants represent the fastest-growing, largest sector of the economy, and yet they provide some of the lowest-paying jobs. This is less of a factor in California, one of few states that mandate servers receive minimum wage in addition to tips. Still, Farm Tank was about much more than California.

“You can’t have a sustainable food system without sustainable wages for the 20 million people who touch our food,” Jayaraman said.