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Food Summit highlights differing views in ag world

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"Learning at a Young Age: Childhood Nutrition and the Obesity Epidemic" was one of two panel discussions at The Atlantic Food Summit last week. From left are moderator Clive Crook, Atlantic senior editor; Jennifer Grossman of the Dole Nutrition Institute; Margot Wootan, Center for Science in the Public Interest; Gary Hall, World Fit Foundation; Elaine Kolish, Council of Better Business Bureaus, and Marilyn Knox, Gerber Products. (The Atlantic/Max Taylor Photography)


Farm leaders always say agriculture should speak with one voice, but the differences within agriculture today were on vivid display at the third annual Atlantic Food Summit in Washington last week.

Martha Stewart, founder of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, headlined the event, which also included testy exchanges between Chris Novak, chief executive officer of the National Pork Board, and Mark "Coach" Smallwood, executive director of the Rodale Institute.

Among the other panelists were Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative at the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

The event also included interviews with Mario Batali, the chef, restaurateur, author and television personality; Kirsten Tobey, the co-founder and chief innovation officer at Revolution Foods, and Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Here are highlights of the interviews and discussions. (See link below to videos of the event.)
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Food writer Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic, interviews Martha Stewart at the Atlantic Food Summit last week. (The Atlantic/Max Taylor Photography)

Martha Stewart on organic and healthy living



Martha Stewart said she has been gardening since helping her father with his garden while growing up in New Jersey. Now that she lives on a farm in Bedford, N.Y., Stewart said, “I grow everything I could grow.”

Noting that she has 200 laying hens, Stewart said that growing her own food is a choice she has made.

“It’s a way of life. It is not easy,” she said.

Martha Stewart

Martha Stewart
Stewart described buying organic as “a real choice now for people,” but noted that she gives organic asparagus to her housekeeper because she cannot afford to buy it. Organic foods “are really so expensive,” she said, noting that she can easily go through a hundred dollars buying them.

“But I don’t blame the farmers. I’m happy they’re there,” she added.

Stewart also said, “The local farmer is no longer the laborer in the fields. He is giving us something we want.”

She noted that while she has eaten meals cooked with the “sous vide” method, where food sealed in airtight bags, she doesn’t use it much because she doesn’t like cooking in plastic.

She also said there should be more women raising families who have high positions in food companies, because they would pay more attention to issues such as healthy eating.

Stewart, who has started a magazine called "Whole Living," noted that living healthy is “hard, hard, hard,” but is growing in popularity.


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Discussing world hunger and sustainability, from left, are Robert Paarlberg, Wellesley College; Chris Novak, National Pork Board, and Mark Smallwood, Rodale Institute. (The Atlantic/Max Taylor Photography)

Varying views on sustainability panel



In a panel discussion on “Feeding a World of Nine Billion — Sustainably,” Chris Novak of the National Pork Board, representing the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, said he has “looked all around the Midwest and tried to find a factory farm, but I can’t find one.”

But Mark Smallwood, executive director of the Rodale Institute, countered that water will be safe only when “all the products made by Monsanto are 100 percent certified organic” and the government bans pesticides.

That statement prompted Novak to complain that he feared “food policy is being driven by tweet first, and ask questions later.”

Smallwood told The Hagstrom Report afterward that he considered Novak’s factory farm statement a soundbite, and noted that he does not tweet.

Rick Leach, president and CEO of the World Food Program USA, a group that supports the World Food Program, said he considers international food security to be a national security issue, but Robert Paarlberg, a professor at Wellesley College and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard, said that in reality governments do not fight wars over such issues, and that food security is an issue of social justice.

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From left: Margo Wootan, Center for Science in the Public Interest; Elaine Kolish, Council of Better Business Bureaus, and Jennifer Grossman, Dole Nutrition Institute

Nutrition and obesity discussion



In a panel discussion on childhood nutrition and the obesity epidemic, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that food companies had gone overboard in their opposition to proposed voluntary government guidelines on advertising food to children.

But Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative at the Council of Better Business Bureaus, said the proposed rules were unworkable. She said that new research the BBB council has conducted shows that there is much more advertising of computer games and other products that do not involve exercise than of foods.

Jennifer Grossman of the Dole Nutrition Institute noted, however, that fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods “get drowned out by the marketing of unhealthy foods.”

Grossman, noting that she once worked for the libertarian Cato Institute, said she questions whether the issue of eating can be addressed only a personal basis because the costs of obesity are shared.

In a discussion on food taxes, Grossman also said that as a former smoker she is glad taxes were raised because the higher taxes made smoking too expensive for her.


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From left: Mario Batali, chef and TV personality; Kirsten Tobey, Revolution Foods; Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan

Other views from the Food Summit



Chef Mario Batali, a restaurateur, author and television personality, said he recently tried eating on a food stamp budget, said that it is possible to buy enough food by going to certain markets, but that survival on that budget involves a lot of planning and little spontaneity.

Kirsten Tobey, the co-founder and chief innovation officer at Revolution Foods, a company that provides “healthy school lunches,” said that her firm's cooks the food in central kitchens, and that she does not believe, as chef Alice Waters has proposed, that it would be practical for food to be prepared in each school each day.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said that in the fall USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass” website will list the actions that other federal agencies have taken to help local agriculture.