2017 Boston Food Tank Summit: Summary and Thoughts

On Saturday, April 1st the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition hosted the 2017 Boston Food Tank Summit. Like all efforts supported by Food Tank – ‘the think tank for food’ -this summit was designed to inspire a global community of innovators pushing for food systems change in America and beyond. Over the course of the day, an impressive list of speakers—from Tufts professors, to farmers, to registered dietitians—offered their impression of the current state of food systems as well as their take on potential solutions.

All agreed that innovative food system models would be the first step to creating change, but opinions varied on what these models should look like. Similarly, speakers differed on their definitions of the core problems propagating flawed food systems. While some argued that social structures limit the power of low income individuals to attain healthy food, others argued that the loss of small farms to large-scale agribusiness leaves the consumer without a concept of their food’s origins—just two of many proposed explanations.

Gardens for Health International (GHI) plays a critical role in the fight for food systems change by not only promoting the necessary steps to correct current systems, but also by  providing a new model that can be learned from and used as proof of successful alternatives. By partnering with the educational and physical resource components of access within one program, GHI attacks the problem from all angles.

Founder of Food Tank, Danielle Nierenberg, challenges attendees to make Boston a model of sustainability that can be scaled up and out for the rest of the world.


Panel I: Farming Differently

The current agribusiness model of food production has disconnected people from their food. When most Americans think about where they will get their next meal, their minds go to grocery stores and food delivery services. For an even greater portion of the world, feeding oneself and one’s family is a much more challenging task; one laden with physical, monetary, educational and access obstacles.

We must change the way we farm so that our consumption and wastefulness is not at the cost of others’ well-being. We can do this by increasing the percentage of the population that engages in agriculture. Currently, only about 2% of the U.S. population is involved in agriculture, which puts large agribusiness corporations in a position of excessive power over the quality and price of available food. In order to counteract this power imbalance, individuals must begin to take on the responsibility of growing their own food or supporting small, local farms.

The simplest solution for fixing this disproportionate number of food growers is through education. Agriculture is not presented as a career path through general education in the United States, although it is a field crucial to our survival and security. Presenting careers in agriculture as viable means for making a living and contributing to society would require the U.S. government to redirect funding away from large, monoculture, cash crop farms and towards small, biodiverse, organic farms.

Panelists discuss how to engage the next generation in farming.


Panel II: The True Value of Food

Viewing food as a consumer good, rather than as a necessity of life, has led to a food system in the United States that works only for those who can afford it. But it is socially irresponsible to rely on market pressure to determine the value of the food market as we do other goods. Access to healthy food should not be a privilege to those who can afford it, but rather an equal right to all.

This sentiment prompts a critical question of ethics: who should decide what future food systems look like? Currently, the demographic in charge of making these decisions is overwhelmingly privileged—socially, economically, and racially. Ironically, these are the people that suffer the least from gaps in the current food system, and would benefit the least from its redesign. Those who would be impacted most by food systems change are, in most cases, excluded from the table of decision-makers. Under-representation of the most vulnerable stakeholders evokes a need for a more equitable distribution of power—a problem not limited to the food systems issue in America.

Panel III: Are We Becoming Nutrient Dense?

In a nation where processed foods line the shelves of every grocery store and pantry, could we be starving ourselves of nutrients? Registered dietitian nutritionist Keri Glassman and Wholesome Wave founder Michel Nischan say yes. Nutrition is a young science, and its findings have been disproven by new studies again and again. The result is that American nutrition seems to be more a conglomeration of dieting fads than nutrition science; less sugar, fat free, low sodium, high in fiber, etc. All these labels mask the biggest problem of all: Americans are consuming fewer whole foods and more processed foods than ever before.

In a country where any given food item could be made from 25 ingredients, 10 of which cannot be pronounced, how are consumers supposed to know where their food comes from or its nutritional value? Food in its purest, healthiest form is fresh produce, straight from the earth. But shifting America away from the paradigm of “fast” food would mean changing habitual behavior on a global scale.

Largely, the problem stems from lack of nutrition education and food access, but which needs to be addressed first? Will nutrition education motivate better food purchases faster than increased access to healthy food would? The panelists agreed there is no right answer, but rather that solutions must be specialized for every community and customized on a case-by-case basis.

Keri Glassman and Michel Nischan explain how promoting a whole foods diet may be the way to break the nutrient-poor habit of processed foods.


Panel IV: Creating Better Food Access

When we hear the word “access”, we may think of the physical ability to reach something, but this is only one meaning of the word when regarding food access. In most areas of the U.S., the access problem is defined by both the price and quality of the food that is available.

The devastating truth is that over a third—approximately 40 percent—of all produce grown in the U.S. never makes it to market. We refer to this as “food waste,” but as the panelists were eager to point out this is not simply a variety of waste but rather wasted food. On the production end, much of this produce is never harvested. Growers know that vendors will not accept “ugly” produce, and choose to leave substandard product unharvested. Vendors throw out large sums of food that go bad before they are sold. The percentage of wasted food only grows if the estimates are adjusted to include food that was purchased, but never eaten.

Getting this wasted food to the hungry and malnourished component of society is no simple fix. The “gleaning movement” in America is currently trying to bridge the gap between unharvested produce and those lacking access to healthy, affordable food. In urban areas, “food rescue” services have begun popping up in an effort to close the gap between unused food and hungry or malnourished constituents of the city. But these are only temporary solutions; a long-term solution would need to involve not only changing the supply chain, but also changing the way we view food as a society.


Panel V: Farm and Food Innovation

One can get lost in all of the bad news revolving around America’s unsustainable, consumerist society; but, let’s not undermine its potential for change. In fact, this consumer society has generated technologies that render the U.S. better equipped to take on food systems issue than ever before. The new concept of “AgTech” is making space for cross-pollination between the worlds of agriculture and engineering. This means pairing the oldest of professions with the newest in order to bring farming into the 21st century.

One innovation with particular promise was the Food Sustainability Index designed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition. This is a web tool available to the general pubic that presents comprehensive statistics and ranking based on individual countries’ food systems. The website itself explains, “It was created as a quantitative and qualitative benchmarking model, constructed from 58 indicators that measure the sustainability of food systems across three themes: Food Loss and Waste, Sustainable Agriculture, and Nutritional Challenges.” This ranking system defines universal metrics by which to measure food sustainability while also making a salient case for low-performing countries to improve the sustainability of their own food systems.

Leo Abruzzese, of The Economist Intelligence Unit, explains the novelty of the Food Sustainability Index and its ability to change the way countries define progress.


Food systems at an International Scale:

While the 2017 Boston Food Tank Summit focused mainly on changing domestic food systems, the principles discussed can, and should, be applied at an international scale. Unlike other global issues, reducing – and even ending – world hunger and malnutrition is within our reach. The reason these problems are perpetuated is that current food systems are designed to promote food waste, benefit the privileged demographic, and minimize the percentage of the population engaged in nutrient-dense agriculture.

As discussed, solving the problem has a unique solution in every community, and respecting this need for specialization becomes increasingly important as we expand our horizons to include more diverse communities around the world. Gardens for Health International goes to great lengths to make sure its programs are designed to meet the specific needs of their partner families. While the educational material is consistent, presentation and application is molded to the specific audience. The Home Garden Package consists of the same value of goods for each partner family, but the seeds and livestock they include are customizable based on personal preference and varying resources.

On a domestic front, changing our food systems will rely heavily on legislation that redistributes the responsibility for growing food. Ironically, in most parts of the world we see that those most commonly affected by hunger and malnourishment are the farmers themselves. In Rwanda, 85% of the population is engaged in agriculture yet 37% of children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. The monetary appeal of starch-based cash crops has reshaped the composition of agriculture and resulted in an abundance of available calories with very little available nutrients. In regions of the world like these, people are not disconnected from the origins of their food as are many Americans. Here, the issue becomes the knowledge and availability of nutrient-dense foods. This is where the model proposed by GHI can have the greatest impact: by providing both the skills and resources needed to grow nutrient-dense home gardens.

The work being done through Gardens for Health International has created an innovative, practical model that the modern world so urgently demands. The programs are designed to link both education and access in a way that caregivers are not forced to choose between the two. But these programs have a long way to go before they become internationally applicable. While GHI has proven the success of such programs in one region of the world, their model will need to be recreated and tested in new contexts to solidify its potential to be fitted to all nations alike. Over the next 2-5 years, our goal is to do just that.

GHI provides customizable Home Garden Packages for partner families based on preference and zone