The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance hosted their third Food Dialogues in New York City, on Thursday, November 15. The day featured three panels discussing topics ranging from media to genetically modified seed.
Moderated by Ali Velshi, CNN chief business correspondent, the first panel covered Media, Marketing and Healthy Choices. Panelists included Richard Ball, New York vegetable farmer; Debbi Beauvais, New York School Nutrition President and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson; Blake Hurst, Missouri farmer and president of Missouri Farm Bureau; Tracie McMillan, author of "The American Way of Eating"; Craig McNamara, California organic farmer; Carolyn O'Neil, WebMD; Kat Kinsman, managing editor, CNN Eatocracy.
The very friendly discussion began with McMillan sharing about her experiences working in grocery stores and living on her income of $3 to $8 an hour. "I found I was less excited about cooking. And I became less interested in eating well," she described.
"I was reminded that I have to keep the real working class in mind in this discussion."
Kinsman described her experience in sharing farmers' stories through the CNN blog, Eatocracy. She learned of a farmer named Ryan Goodman through a blog comment, and found his blog showing day to day life on the farm. She asked him to write a piece for Eatocracy, which "started a really great series I've been very happy about. Mike Haley, Craig Rogers now writing too and taking questions. When you invite public in to ask questions and critique, there's tremendous hostility that somehow farmers are getting one over on them that they're sitting back lazily taking subsidies. This has led to a lot of fighting but also to some really productive conversations and changing of minds. You can do that just by starting a blog."
Overall, the panelists agreed that Americans are disconnected from how food is produced, and really, from cooking from scratch.
"We as a nation are suffering from nature deficit disorder," said McNamara. McMillan adds that the nation as a whole no longer knows how to cook from scratch. "That's an art, that's cultivated over a number of years," she describes.
Conversation also moved to answer the question, "what is healthy food?" Hurst pointed out that it is possible to have a healthy diet with frozen vegetables and with canned vegetables, and Beauvais shared her challenges in feeding 40,000 meals a day in the New York public school system.
"It's perception and reality. People have perceptions about school meals and about farming. I speak about school nutrition and I have so many OMG moments – 'you only have a $1.25 to put a meal on a plate and I want it to be fresh and organic?' Marketing and media can help us – take fruit and yogurt parfaits. As they become popular, I can work that into school lunches."
Hurst also attempted to build a bridge between organic and conventional systems. "We need to be careful in agriculture not to tear down one kind of agriculture while we advance another. We can increase conversations and communication between farmers and consumers but the food system by necessity is going to be big. We have three million people in this country who expect to be fed 3 meals a day. So there will be some long distribution chains. And that's a good thing. It's good to have a big country and long supply chains because it does lower the risk of the food system."
The audience also questioned the different farming methods, to which Hurst responded, "It's a big country. You will find most organic farmers in the north and the south, and more likely to raise organic in the west than in Midwest. Harder to raise cotton in Missouri than in the south. Don't think if I choose not to grow organic that it's a reflection of morals. It's a reflection of where I live. There are different kinds of weather, of insects and pests. It's just the way it is."
In the end, conversation turned to farm size, and the panel generally agreed that the U.S romanticizes the small farmer and has a general anti-corporate bent.
But Ball points out, that's not the point. "Anytime you start talking farm size, you defeat the purpose. It's one of the common misconceptions when people come out to our farm," he says.
"Some will tell us you're good because you're small but my neighbor is bad because he's big. But he expanded to make room for more family to come in, and they're hiring people and creating jobs and isn't that good? We produce something. Real wealth is created when someone takes raw ingredients and turns it into something. We need more of that not less."