Commonwealth Club: The Centralization of Our Food System | Civil Eats

Commonwealth Club: The Centralization of Our Food System

In a sold-out room at The Commonwealth Club on August 14, Moderator Naomi Starkman led a discussion about “The Centralization of Our Food System.”

Centralization affects all aspects of our food system, Starkman said, including production, distribution, consumption patterns, and economic cycles. The question is, what does this really mean?

To answer that question, she turned to Roots of Change President Michael Dimock, Ecosa Capital Managing Director Paul Frankel, and Don Shaffer, President and CEO of RSF Social Finance.

Dimock began by discussing how perfect our current system was – that is, it is perfect if the ultimate value is profit. But, what if there are other goals for a food system, like the health of the society?

Frankel added that centralization is a necessary component of our food system, and that it is not necessarily bad, we just need to optimize it for the values that we hold dear – local culture, communities, and heritage.

Shaffer jumped in, wanting to get to the root of the issue. “We all need to realize that we need to invest our money differently,” was one of his central points. The reality is, Shaffer says, that all of us as investors and consumers are responsible for the system that we have. We need to try to create more alternatives to be able to invest our money in sustainable projects.

What the current system does do very well, continued Dimock, is to create a cheap price point. But it does this by externalizing some of the costs. For example, water pollution caused by farming and transportation is something that society as a whole has to pay for.

The good news is that we now have momentum in the right direction. One large reason for current change is the high price of oil. Shaffer pointed out that this makes international trade less viable, making all companies look for local sources. “It’s an encouraging shift,” he says.

Dimock pointed out that even WalMart and other large retailers are starting to buy local for economic reasons. This is great, Frankel added, because WalMart brings awareness and education to a whole new group of consumers. What’s more, it lowers prices and increases the demand for organic and sustainable goods in the process.

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What’s the take-away message? What actions can we all take? Here are some panelist recommendations:

1. Buy from retailers who buy local and seasonal.

2. Shrink the distance between you and your food sources.

3. Shrink the distance between you and where your money is invested.

4. Build relationships with where your food comes from.

5. Write two letters: one to the State Capital, and one to the White House, asking them both to plant vegetable gardens on their lawns.

6. Make a meal from local sources. Live and express your appreciation for the connection between food and community.

Today’s food system is complex.

Invest in nonprofit journalism that tells the whole story.

7. Support businesses that share your values.

8. Support the FoodDeclaration.org. The Declaration calling for healthy food, farms, and communities will be read aloud in a ceremony at Slow Food Nation on August 28th, in the Rotunda of San Francisco’s City Hall.

Images by TheeErin and David Boyle in DC

Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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