The Culinary Institute of America held its annual Menus of Change conference this week, a gathering aimed at answering a basic question:
How do we bring the business, culinary, environmental, and medical communities together to create a food system that promotes health, prosperity, and the planet?
For the conference invitees, it’s more than an interesting question. It’s an existential issue that will define the future of their business and advocacy.
But because these interests have historically clashed with one another, the opportunities to talk openly aren’t common. Rewind the clock a decade or so and they’re nonexistent.
That, conference organizers contend, is changing.
Menus of Change featured the release of its 2016 annual report, a collaboration with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In it, you’ll find the standard guidance about diet and nutrition that many of us know by rote.
But the report also features a grading system aimed at evaluating key issue areas for progress: things like climate change, water use, animal welfare, seasonality, and more. Those areas were then condensed into short, actionable tips for people to use in daily life — reminders of how to eat healthfully, respect the environment, and encourage sustainable business:
Interestingly, the report doesn’t grade individual players, but rather the entire food system. It’s a radical way of viewing the issue, one that acknowledges a central truth: when it comes to building a sustainable future, we’re in this together.
It’s hard to overestimate how important that point is: without a collaborative effort, it’s generally agreed that these problems won’t be solved. With a growing obesity crisis, a projected average global temperature increase of anywhere from 3 to 12 degrees Celsius by 2100, and a food system that will struggle to support a population that could feasibly double in the next 200 years, we are facing challenges that no one group – or even industry together – can solve independently.
The report graded us as making significant progress in areas like innovations in the food industry, changes in investment standards in the food industry for professional investors, and chefs’ influence on consumer attitudes.
But on others – like climate change – there was little good to say. Efforts to decrease environmental impact from food production were generally graded poorly, with areas like water use, sustainable fishing, and consumer attitudes about sustainable foods receiving the worst marks.
Promisingly, the seeds of change were there. Unilever, presenting sponsor of the conference, recently rolled out their Sustainable Living Plan, a comprehensive framework for halving the company’s environmental impact by 2030.
Sodexo, one of America’s largest foodservice companies, received plaudits for “The Blend”, a burger that contains 70% beef and 30% mushrooms. With better taste, higher margins, and lower environmental impact, The Blend was hailed as a test case for products that can create industry-wide change while maintaining or improving the bottom line.
Also represented were the convening trade groups behind some of the medical community’s most celebrated ingredients: healthy nuts, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables, and sustainable seafood.
At times, attendees were stunned to see representatives from America’s largest food companies speaking candidly about the need for change. It was common during the three-day event to hear consensus about promoting a plant-based diet, reducing consumption of processed foods, and overhauling many of the stereotypical American diet’s most pernicious habits.
But the tone remained hopeful, friendly, and positive. Speakers were optimistic about upcoming efforts to shift product lines, raise awareness of the human, animal, and environmental impact of the food chain, and improve access to (and knowledge of) healthy foods for people across the globe.