The world of food in America is evolving, and we like what we see. EatingWell Magazine’s first annual list of American Food Heroes shows just how trends in American food are changing for the better.
“We are living in a golden age,” the story reads. “There has perhaps never been a time with more positive changes happening around food.”
EatingWell’s ten American Food Heroes run the gamut from CEOs of big brands like Bob’s Red Mill and Panera Bread to lesser known names like Bren Smith, executive director of GreenWave and owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm.
EatingWell Editor-in-Chief Jessie Price notes that she wanted the list not only to reflect the “diversity of amazing things happening in food right now,” but also to highlight leaders whose work can be acknowledged nationwide.
“We write about local heroes all the time – people doing things in their community,” she says. “But we wanted each of these people to have large-scale impact.”
This scope has highlighted certain welcome trends in American food.
1. Technology and Food Can Work in Symbiosis
It’s no secret that we’re living in a technological age, and these advances have reached our food system. From scannable QR codes revealing what’s in individual items to (very divisive) genetic modification, innovations in food and technology go hand-in-hand.
Lee DeHaan of the Land Institute is a plant geneticist putting new technologies to good use without entering the realm of GMOs. His work involves sequencing plant genomes and using genetic markers to help domesticate wild species more quickly, like Kernza, the intermediate wheatgrass species that DeHaan began breeding for the Land Institute in 2003.
“We’ve got tens of thousands of years of catch-up to do with other annual grain crops, and we’re trying to use every technique we can,” he explains, noting that in the past year, he and his team have drafted the entire genome of the species: for comparison, it took people over ten years to draft the genome of wheat.
“We were able to make the same sort of progress faster, just because the technologies are there,” he says.
While teams have been working on these sorts of projects since 1976, DeHaan is excited about what the next year of work will bring.
“I’m looking at evaluating seedlings and being able to pick the best ones without actually having to grow them all the way up to a mature plant,” he says.
“For me it’s still about making progress, in the laboratory, in the field,” he continues. “We’ve been able to continue that progress and accelerate it, I hope, and that’s what gives me excitement looking at the future.”
2. Cooperation is Essential
In the past few years, the influence of co-ops has expanded leaps and bounds. Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative that was founded in 1988, has become a $1.1 billion business and the largest grass-fed organic dairy producer in the United States. Maple Hill Creamery, while much newer (it was founded in 2009) seems perfectly positioned for great things, too.
Founding Farmer and CEO Tim Joseph is humble, to say the least.
“I’m honored by it,” he says of his inclusion on the list. “But it’s actually less about me and more about all the hard work that goes on beyond me as a person.”
That said, Joseph has high standards: not just for the milk produced by the 130 grass-fed organic dairy farms who are members of the cooperative, but also for the grass-fed industry on the whole which, he alleges, is wrought with mislabeling, particularly when it comes to grass-fed.
“We’re getting very close to having an agreed-upon standard within the organic community that defines grass-fed,” Joseph explains. “It’s obviously still voluntary – there’s no government agency saying you must use this – but Maple Hill Creamery, Organic Valley, and a number of other certifiers are very close to having a common standard.”
Joseph is particularly keen on establishing this recognition given how much extra work the farmers in the cooperative do to adhere to Maple Hill’s grass-fed standard.
“We have farms that really have changed how they do things and put themselves at risk,” he says. “We can’t pay them the price they deserve if they’re competing against dairy products that are not held to the same standards.”
In the meantime, Joseph is making sure that the farms in the cooperative are rewarded for their efforts. While farmers are generally paid on commodity value, Maple Hill incentivizes farmers for implementing specific practices that yield positive benefits for consumers, reinforcing the sense of community for these co-op members looking to make a difference.
3. People Are Investing in Young People: The Future of American Food
It’s no surprise that often, our image of a farmer looks like Old McDonald. Lindsey Shute, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Young Farmers Coalition, notes that farmers over the age of 65 still outnumber farmers under the age of 35 by a margin of about six to one, and that’s a problem.
“With all of these farmers aging and nearing retirement, there is a real need for young people to start farming and to either take over existing farms or start new farms on land that will be up for sale,” she says. “However, despite the need for young and beginning farmers, it likely has never been harder to get started in a farm career.”
This, she notes, is due to the increasing price of land nationwide. She and the rest of the Coalition are working hard to protect land, farms, and soil for young, beginning, and working farmers across the country.
“Our hope is that consumers will be more involved,” she says. “So that we’ll have a food system where local food will be available and will have real food security within regions and young people will be able to fill that need as innovative entrepreneurs in that space.”
Especially considering the desire of young people for sustainable food – a 2015 Nielsen study found that Millennials were most willing to pay extra for sustainable choices – this is an important battle on the American food scene.
Perhaps the biggest clue that these heroes are reflective of a changing food industry is the increased interest in their stories. While Price notes that EatingWell has been covering the good food movement for more than two decades, she also notes that the magazine’s readership has grown exponentially in recent years.
“When I started with the magazine 13 years ago, we had less than 300,000 in circulation,” she says. “Today we’re at a million.”
“I think our growth and audience totally reflects the change that has happened with American consumers.”
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