I was truly fortunate to be handpicked from 800 applications to be part of the 200 member viewing audience at the TEDx talks in Manhattan last week focusing on sustainable food and farming. The talks reached many members across the country through viewing parties where one could watch all the talks and also, in the spirit of TED, connect with one other about the sustainable food movement. If that wasn’t possible, then anyone could watch the entire conference streaming live.
For those unfamiliar with the TED talks, TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is all about “ideas worth spreading” where leaders in their field give 18 minute talks that focus on their particular area of work. All talks are archived and can be seen in their entirety at the TED website. This particular TED talk was independently organized by one of the most important organizations for sustainable agriculture in the Northeast, Glynwood, which I wrote about in a previous journal entry. The day was broken into three areas exploring the local food movement, its challenges and its future directions.
Session one asked: “What Happened?”
How did we come to this pivotal point in time where we have become so dissociated with real food that soon we will reach a point where feeding ourselves will no longer be possible without the complete breakdown of our ecology and our health. Actually, that’s happening right now. Some of the reasons given were:
1. Explosive populations (Carolyn Steel)
2. The demise of the family dinner (Laurie David)
3. The burdens on the small family farm (Cheryl Rogowski)
4. The [ever-present] factory farm in our landscapes poisoning our soil (Karen Hudson).
5. Farm subsidies: Ken Cook* of the EWG laid out the shocking finances of farm subsidies and urged us all to press for real change in the Farm Bill and
6. Manipulation: Scott Kahan, MD* showed us why we’ve become wired to salivate for foods laden with fat, sugar and starch rather than mother nature’s simple foods.
7.And finally Kathy Lawrence showed us the state of the school lunch and how that needs to change.
All of these talks can be fully viewed HERE until February 26th 2011. My favorite lectures are marked with an *
Session 2 asked, “Where are we?”
Looking at the accomplishments already made by the sustainable food movement, the intent was to show hope. It opened with a pre-recorded TED talk from Dan Barber, Chef of Blue Hill Restaurant on “How I Fell in Love with a Fish.” If you had time for just one talk to view, this would definitely be the one. In the spirit of Dan Barber and his highly enjoyable storytelling skills, it will make you laugh and then super-charge you with inspiration.
1. We heard from Brain Halweil, who talked about inventive ways all types of farmers are coming up with to address different challenges in access, such as food deserts, places where there is little to no ability to find fresh, non-processed food.
2. Other topics ranged from expanding local food systems through partnerships (Lucus Knowles),
3. How urban food deserts like Harlem and Bedford-Styuvesant in the Bronx are finding new ways to bring fresh produce to their communities (Barbara Askins and Melony Samuels),
4. The greening of restaurants (Elizabeth Meltz)
5. Growing food in creative and bizarre ways but using it as a vehicle for education (Ian Cheney*) and
6. Why the food movement isn’t just about eating it’s about civic engagement (Josh Viertel)
To watch session 2 click HERE until February 26, 2011.
Session 3 asked “Where are we going”
1. Discussing the direction of the food movement in its role in diseases like cancer through research (William Li),
2. How to rebuild the infrastructure of our food delivery system to support truly local food (Michael Conrad),
3. How urbanites are doing “R&D-IY” - that’s research and develop it yourself - to find unique ways of addressing the challenges of feeding people in cities. One concept was windowfarming (Britta Riley),
4. How to creatively finance food ideas(Elizabeth U),
5. Coming up with a sustainability index (Frederick Kaufman),
6. Creating a PeaceCorp model for food called FoodCorps (Curet Ellis) and finally,
7. Ideas in taking money directed at farm subsidies and redirecting them in ways to break the cycle of poverty (Michel Nischan*).
To watch session 3 click HERE until February 26, 2011
NOW THE GOOD STUFF....
But what wasn’t recorded was the “magic of the TED talks” that happened for those, like myself, that were lucky to be in the audience. This magic happens in between the talks where you meet strangers so diverse in their backgrounds yet so like-minded, you can get sucked into the deepest of conversations in seconds and avoid the superficial small talk. Throughout my life in medicine, I’ve been to many dozens of conferences but never have had made these monumental connections with so many other people so easily and instantaneously. The magic formula? Diverse backgrounds and people with the same agenda and passion: promoting a sustainable food and farming movement. I’ll let you eavesdrop in some magical connections I made...
Ken Kleinpeter, director of Farm and Facilities at Glynwood. I got into the topic of the health benefits of grassfed beef with Ken and learned some eye-opening facts. I asked him if he knew the answer to this question: how many months/weeks does an animal need to graze on grass for it to be labeled grassfed. Half it’s life? One month? 2 weeks? I found out there is NO standard for that labeling which just goes to show, once again: get to know your farmer and ask questions.
Then I met the vivacious Marisa Weiss, MD a practicing breast cancer oncologist of 20 years in Philadelphia and also the founder and president of Breastcancer.org, the most-trafficked medically-reviewed online resource for breast health and breast cancer information. We spoke about integrative medicine in breast cancer. Coincidentally, I had actually co-authored a piece for her website on the topic more than five years ago. Small world. For those that don’t know this is what I do besides farm - integrative medicine with a speciality in cancer. It’s always, nice to meet an open-minded oncologist - a true rarity. Her new project to be launched is called “Think Pink, Live Green.” It’s objective is to answer this question: what is it about the breast that makes it so vulnerable to cancer? Yup, it’s all the pesticides, indirect hormones and xenoestrogens we consume in our food. We met 2 days later to see if we could collaborate in the future.
There was actually very little time to talk but I was hankering for these moments to connect with others and I could have seen myself doing this for days and days. I then sat down next to the editor of one of my favorite local magazines - Eric Steinman of Edible Hudson Valley. Edible Communities is a publisher of different locally focused magazines in the country connecting consumers with family farmers, chefs, and food artisans in their own community from Manhattan to San Francisco to Vancouver. Eric tells me his magazine is so popular that they can’t keep up with the demand and when the magazine comes out, it disappears within 2 weeks. This is how hungry people are for local resources. A good sign!
For lunch, the TED organizers asked us to find 4 people we hadn't met yet to sit down together for lunch provided by one of my favorite Manhattan restaurants, The Green Table. And what a great time I had.
I met Joy Pierson owner of Candle Cafe in Manhattan, one of the oldest vegan restaurants in NYC and also one of my favorite whenever I’m on the upper East side. Not only does she own the restaurant, but she’s a nutritional counselor since 1985. We exchanged stories about the state of medicine and nutrition and she recalls that when her grandfather, a physician in the 1920’s passed away, she found countless pages in his apartment about nutritional deficiencies and how they can be cured by the use of food. We had a lot in common.
Then there was Jared Koch, a nutritional lifecoach in the NYC area who also authored Clean Plates Manhattan 2011 , a compact book which is a guide to the healthiest and most sustainable restaurants in Manhattan. It’s chocked filled with tips on how to order to make the healthiest and sustainable choices possible.
And to show the diversity of the table, there was Naveen Sinha, a third year graduate student of Applied Physics from Harvard. Last year, he was the head teaching fellow for the Harvard science and cooking class. His latest project is to investigate the microscopic structure of chocolate, particularly what happens during the tempering process (i.e. the steps used by chocolate-makers to make smooth, cleanly-breaking chocolate) and his eventual goal is to find new ways to teach people about science using everyday examples from agriculture, cooking, nutrition, and other topics. Wow! There is hope for those Harvard stiffs! Thinking about a class at Harvard on the science of chocolate reminded me of Walter Bishop in his lab at Harvard on my recent TV addiction, Fringe.
And then there was Michel Nischan, chef, restauranteur and sustainable food pioneer. Among one of the many projects he’s been working on, we connected about his program of “Doctors as Pharmers” and he was excited to learn that I embodied that, literally, being both MD and farmer. His fruit and veggie Rx program in development is about connecting physicians, farmers and those with limited access to produce. The idea is that doctors write a Rx for a certain serving of vegetables that patients can take to the greenmarket and get real food instead of pharmaceuticals. Everyone wins - the patient’s health, the doctor, by reducing healthcare costs, and the farmer who gets paid. The idea is to use money, to the tune of 800 billion, that taxpayers already shell out annually for the treatment of preventable disease. That part needs some fine tuning and I hope Michel and I can continue this conversation again in the future. Since I am affiliated with Beth Israel Medical Center and there are clinics that serve low income populations just blocks away from the celebrated Union Square Greenmarket, hopefully we’ll have much to collaborate on in the future.
At the next and final break I met Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez, pastry chef extraordinaire and former owner of Lassi, a tiny Northern Indian take out restaurant in the west village where the food was incredibly clean tasting - like homemade Indian food leaving you feeling both satiated and light. She opened up Print Restaurant with her husband Charles Rodriguez. Her restaurant uses seasonally sourced ingredients from local farms. I met the restaurants full-time in house forager Johanna Kolodny who told me about the mushroom foraging clubs in Manhattan. Can I tell you I was in heaven? My mission is to eat there in the next few weeks.
Michael Larson, Co-founder of Farmhearts which is an organization to promote family farms and raise awareness of locally produced foods told me about his work to prevent fraking in the upstate NY communities. He asked me if I knew what fraking was. Immediately, I thought of my TV addiction to Battle Star Galactica a few years ago, and said yeah, that's a euphemism for f**king from one of my favorite sci-fi TV series. If you’re thinking I watch a lot of TV at this point, I DON’T! Well, I learned it’s the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas deposits from underground shale which is all over NYS. It involves blasting water, sand and chemicals to extract the natural gas below which means toxicity to the neighboring areas. Wow. I just put Gasland , the documentary on this topic and moved it to the top of my Netflix queue. And finally, I chatted with one of the speakers Scott Kahan, MD who gave one of the best talks of the day. I guess it’s very easy for me to connect with other MDs, but since he was into the area of preventable medicine we both agreed that the biggest obstacles in behavioral modification is helping to change someone’s diet since we’ve been manipulated since birth to crave fat and sugar.
All I can say, is that I am grateful that the powers that be included me in this this absolutely inspiring day. I am ready to change the world. I hope everyone reading this or who has viewed the talks feels that way as well. The biggest message here is to get involved in some way . Don’t wait for the government to do this. Vote with your dollars, help set up a food garden at your school, peel back that piece of lawn in your backyard or front yard and plant a seedling.