Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Who's leading American food?

Put aside the news about food-safety outbreaks and obesity numbers for a minute and think about something positive: The people doing incredible work to improve sustainability and fairness in America's food policy.

I got to play a small part in that last week. Two years ago, I was stepping down after 10 years on the committee that oversees the James Beard Foundation's book awards. I was literally at my last meeting in New York when the committee that oversees all of the foundation's awards started talking seriously about finding a way to honor American food beyond the glitz and glamour of the yearly restaurant and chef awards.

The foundation was starting a yearly conference that would bring together the best minds to highlight great work being done. In addition, the foundation wanted to include some kind of an award. What kind, they didn't know. They just knew there was a lot of important work being done in areas of food availability, sustainable agriculture and food policy.

That's where I came in: Since I knew how to write bylaws and set up committee procedures from my work with the book awards, the foundation asked if I would stay on as a volunteer to figure out how to make a new set of awards. We wanted to honor a long list of criteria, everything from hunger relief to school gardens.

The result was the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards: A list of honorees who will be named every year for the work they're doing right now. The first honorees were named last week in New York, at the second JBF Food Conference: Sustainability on the Table.

As a journalist, I can't vote on things that I might need to cover. So the Leadership Awards were arranged so I don't have to: We have a prestigious advisory committee that picks the nominees and votes.

The initial advisory committee: chefs Dan Barber and Rick Bayless, Scott Cullen of the GRACE Communication Foundation, Hal Hamilton of the Sustainable Food Lab, culinary historian Jessica Harris, Robert Lawrence of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins, nutrition and public health professor Marion Nestle, Eric Rimm of Harvard, Gus Schumacher of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, Debbie Shore of Share Our Strength, Naomi Starkman of Civil Eats, and Arlin Wasserman of Sodexo.

My role is gatekeeper -- I make the train run on time. I helped to write the award definition and criteria, ran the conference calls and set up the schedule. But the work that was honored last week is so important, I'm proud to play even that small role.

Here are the first honorees, and a little about them. Yes, there are some names on this list you may not expect, like Unilever and Costco. But it takes all kinds of work to make a sustainable food supply. It's not all Saturday morning farmers markets, folks:

Will Allen, (below) founder of Rainbow Farmer's Cooperative, the last remaining farm within the Milwaukee city limits, and founder of Growing Power, a 2-acre urban agriculture model that works with children and adults to grow food in inner cities.

Fedele Bauccio, Bon Appetit Management Company, an innovative food-service company that pioneers things like a Low Carbon Diet program. Bon Appetit also works with the United Farm Workers and Oxfam to support social-justice in the harvesting of food.

Debra Eschmeyer, (left, with her husband Jeff) co-founder of Food Corps, which works with AmeriCorps to match young adults with school-based food organizations in high-obesity, low-resource communities.

Sheri Flies, assistant general merchandise manager for Costco. Yes, Costco: Flies oversees the sourcing of limited-resource commodities for the Kirkland Signature label, making sure the products are environmentally sustainable and making sure workers get fair treatment and health care.

Jan Kees Vis, global director of sustainable sourcing for Unilever. A big company like Unilever makes a lot of products that use palm oil. Vis changed the way palm oil is grown and harvested to make it sustainable.

Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University of president of the board of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Fred has a farming background and a visionary's imagination.

Michelle Obama, for her work on childhood obesity and the Let's Move campaign. The first lady doesn't officially accept awards, but the White House sent advisor Sam Kass in her place.

Janet Poppendieck, sociology professor at Hunter College and author of "Sweet Charity," an examination of food relief programs, and "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America."

Alice Waters, for her advocacy of sustainable agriculture and her work with the Edible Schoolyard program.

Craig Watson, vice president of Agriculture Sustainability for food-service giant Sysco Corp. Sysco's Integrated Pest Management program includes 921,000 acres and 30 local food programs.

You can find more on the Leadership Awards, including video from the conference sessions, at www.jamesbeard.org.