Scenes from the Stanford Food Summit | Civil Eats

Scenes from the Stanford Food Summit

To reform our food system lastingly and effectively, we’re going to need a lot more authoritative research from valued institutions of higher learning. So there was cause for celebration last week, when the inaugural Stanford Food Summit brought together representatives from all seven of the university’s schools under the slogan, “Complex problems require multidisciplinary solutions.”

The on-campus gathering on Nov. 3 drew about 400 faculty members, administrators, and students as well as a handful of non-profit and other visitors to explore such topics as “Global Food Security,” “Quest for the Optimal Diet,” and “Reforming the Farm Bill.” Afternoon sessions were devoted to “interactive discussions” on how to collaborate between disciplines and develop future fundable projects.

Glad tidings, all. Yet what seemed like a brand new day in the land of academic plenty felt a little bit awkward–and even, in moments, unschooled–to anyone familiar with the complexity of issues across the food spectrum and the precedents set by numerous groups, many of far more modest means, over decades of hard work. A quality of innocent disregard for this imposing body of food-related scholarship and investigation seemed to permeate an event that had been staged with the best of goals–to encourage gifted researchers to look beyond their own academic silos.

Perhaps the disconnect was merely tonal. After all, Stanford is accustomed to leading, not following, and a degree of hubris may be inevitable when a very powerful institution throws its weight in force behind an equally powerful idea. Maybe that institution can’t just come to the party but rather has to throw its own.

And Stanford knows how to throw a party. The morning began with volunteers hopping onto a Cardinal-red bike fitted with a blender and pedal-powering batches of spinach-laced “Mega Omega” smoothies. “It’s just like a spin class!” one young woman enthused as guests were handed small pours and pointed toward a compost bin waiting to receive their biodegradable cups.

Inside the auditorium, the mostly professorial speakers ran through a range of impressive research projects. Among them: Ira Lit (School of Education), who proposed a rethinking of the purpose and possibility of schools, especially for young children, to encompass broader and more diverse curricula, including edible education; David Lobell (School of Earth Sciences), who described the impact of agricultural and environmental disruptions in a world where one in seven humans now lives with food insecurity; and Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert (School of Medicine), who showed how the computer models he’s developing can capture and analyze the interrelationships of obesity, malnutrition and climate change in India and, eventually, worldwide.

Follow-up Q&A between pre-selected students and the speakers made up in earnestness for what it lacked in trenchancy. During a break, another professor offered some insight into the overall shortage of contextual awareness. As a Stanford educator, he said, he finds himself dealing with both unlimited intellectual opportunity and an attitude of entitlement that promotes insularity and self-regard: “Stanford and its incredibly rich resources exist inside a bubble that is itself inside an exclusive [academic] club.”

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His point seemed aptly illustrated by the lunch that followed, as delicious as it was, and it was–sandwiches of Petaluma Rocky Junior chicken, grilled roast beef with caramelized onions, applewood smoked Wild Alaskan salmon with glazed fennel, vegan squash with tomato chutney; salads of roasted brussels sprouts, wheatberry and rice, root vegetables and oranges, baby lettuces and watermelon radishes; and a fresh-fruit and nut crumble for dessert.

The chef du jour was Jesse Cool, a local restaurateur and doyenne of the Cool Café at Stanford’s Cantor Art Center (where you can have a vegetarian mushroom burger with Rodins). Ms. Cool, who was also a speaker, recalled having been asked by the university several years ago to cater a summit on sustainability. Back then, she explained, food was not considered a relevant topic, and she had looked on from the sidelines. Known for her long-time commitment to sustainable agriculture, she clearly was delighted to have been upgraded this time around to podium status.

With a gentle sternness that those who know how to feed us seem often and uncannily to possess, Ms. Cool went on to admonish the audience. She urged the group to recognize and honor the contributions of others across professions and affiliations, and as she spoke the whiff of disconnectedness seemed momentarily to evaporate. You are members of a larger community of interest and concern, was her message. Don’t forget that. And don’t forget the chefs. And don’t forget the farmers!

The event’s chief organizer, Christopher Gardner (School of Medicine) predicted that next year’s planned event will draw a much larger crowd. One hopes and trusts that he’s right, and also that the 2011 Stanford Food Summit will reflect and interactively discuss more of the great breadth and depth of research in the field.

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As it happened, one of the most respected contributors to the evolving canon, Tim Galarneau of the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, was in the audience. The stacks of CASFS research briefs he had brought along sat on a table in the lobby, there for the taking, though they appeared to be considerably less enticing than the Blender Bike.

Katrina Heron is Newsweek/The Daily Beast's Editor-at-Large, has been Editor-in-Chief of Wired, Senior Editor at The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and Story Editor at The New York Times Magazine. Her articles have been published in Vogue, Dwell, and The New York Times. She is a co-author of Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves In A Newly Dangerous World (HarperCollins, 2005), co-founder of Civil Eats and an adviser to the Atavist. Read more >

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  1. Bill McCann
    You have writen a beautiful little piece. My life has been far and away from the "academic silos", but I did brush up against them at the recent Terra Madre event in Italy. You described so nicely, in just a few words, the disconect that has happened to all of us. There I was, in the midst of seven thousand delegates and observers...the lone butcher. Unless you count the guy at Whole Foods, who sells them their boneless skinless chicken breasts: how many Stanford professors know a butcher who actually works at his trade. It took us a while to get to this point, but I think that we are working back in the right direction. Thank you.

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