TEDxManhattan Gives Louisville Food for Thought

On Saturday’s wintry morning, the air flecked with an occasional snowflake, a couple hundred people made their way into the York Street Library to spend the whole day talking about one very important subject: food. The local foodies were there for the TEDxManhattan “Changing the Way We Eat” Viewing Party, a live webcast of an all day event in NYC focused on sustainable food and farming.

I got there early for registration and milled around in the lobby, drawn by the earthy tunes of a band called Vessel and the free Heine Bros. coffee. I felt a twinge of guilt as I filled my highly unsustainable paper cup, wishing I had been as thoughtful as the other thermos-toting java drinkers. Not that I got any unfriendly looks—this was a warm crowd, and fairly mixed too. While our group was admittedly mostly white, and by the looks of it, middle-class, there were people of all ages: 20-something couples, lots of senior citizens, and middle-aged folks as well.

I very fittingly found myself seated next to a young couple from Portland, Oregon. Having moved to Louisville in August from that northwestern mecca of hipster culture, they said they were pleasantly surprised by the level of support for the local food scene in our city—a sweet little sip of validation, I have to say, at the risk of sounding obsequious.

By the time our conversation had brushed the inescapables—microbreweries, Portlandia, and Colin the Chicken—the program began. Stephen Reily, the man behind the curtain for this event, kicked it off with an introduction. He’s the founder of Seed Capital Kentucky. It’s an organization that gives technical and financial assistance to farmers who are trying to break into chemical-free farming.

Then Kentucky’s First Lady made a video appearance and she laid on us some surprising figures—like the fact that there are 80,000 farms in Kentucky, and that our state has more family farms per capita than any other in the U.S. Pretty cool!

The first speaker of the Manhattan event was Birke Baehr, a red-headed 11-year old with a North Carolina country twang and a vendetta against GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and factory farming. And as disorienting as it was to hear the evils of the food industry detailed by a fifth-grader, it was strangely powerful—and cute. Birke had some scary things to say about genetically modified corn, like the fact that it’s been shown to cause health problems, such as cancer, in rats. “You can pay the farmer, or you can pay the hospital,” were some of the wisest words spoken all morning, and they came out of this school-yard fireball.

Next up was David Wallinga, a writer and advocate for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. He talked about the “perfect storm” that factory farming brews for antibiotic resistance. According to Wallinga,while  7 million pounds of antibiotics a year are used in humans, 29 million pounds are used in livestock. This flooding of animals with antibiotics makes it frighteningly likely that ultra-dangerous bacteria will develop—bacteria that are resistant to each and every kind of antibiotic. According to Wallinga, unfortunately MRSA won’t be the meanest cat in town for long.

Wenonah Hauter, the Executive Director of the Food and Water Watch, spoke about the abuses of contract farming and the role of corporations like Tyson and JBS in the terrible exploitation of chicken growers. She calls the current contract, “modern-day sharecropping.” According to Hauter, large poultry corporations make ludicrous “upgrade” demands on their contracted growers, with the goal of keeping them in debt, and therefore unable to get out of the abusive contracts.

While a lot of these speakers gave us a pretty bleak outlook for the food industry, Mayor Greg Fischer’s State of the Local Food Economy address offered a much sunnier perspective, when it comes to our city of Louisville. He talked about the growing support in our community for local farmers, the success of farmers’ markets and our place at “the head of the pack” among cities with strong support for a local food economy.

According to Fischer, Louisville won a $150,000 Childhood Obesity Prevention Award that will provide fresh produce to our under-served neighborhoods. Slow Food has also recognized Louisville’s growing taste for sustainable food, and has chosen our city as the location for its National Congress this spring.

While the Mayor insists the spotlight should remain on the farmers and activists, he couldn’t help but give a few kudos to his own administration’s work. He cites a growing effort to connect JCPS cafeterias to local crops, and overall to connect an urban Louisville to a rural Kentucky. Fischer also talked about updating land-use policy codes to encourage community gardening. Our Mayor seemed most proud of the LIFE (Local Integrated Food Economy) zones project, which will work to create new markets for healthy food in the Portland neighborhood.

Finally, Fischer outlined three goals for his administration (he likes this number): 1) to get funding from the Agriculture Dept. for Farm-to-Table; 2) to better quantify the demand for local food; and 3) to develop a “strategic plan” for increasing   the connection between Louisville’s dinner tables and local farmers.

Well, I’m not sure what the “strategic plan” will be, and I have a feeling Fischer’s administration doesn’t yet either. But the Mayor says quantifying the demand for local food should put his staff on track for the said strategizing.

Summary: It’s a scary world out there in America’s cornfields and stockyards, but where there is a demand for change, there is hope. Good job, Louisville! Keep up the tasty work! The more demand we as consumers create for local, healthy products, the brighter our future will be for our bodies, our farmers, our earth and our consciences.