TEDxManhattan: Changing the Way We Eat

The TEDx Manhattan "Changing the Way We Eat" conference was an assault on the senses.  Music heard, experts seen, and food tasted and touched. Being thrilled and excited to attend the conference in person, I didn't know what to expect other than go in expecting a TED* style of learning. The event focused on sustainable food and farming with the goal to create new connections and collaborations across various disciplines (academia, restaurants, writers, farmers, and researchers).  

Stepping into the Prince George Ballroom, gilded chairs were set in tightly packed rows forcing a bit of networking and creating a sense of intimacy for participants and presenters.  The conference’s main organizer, Diane Hatz of The Glynwood Institute for Sustainable Food & Farming, opened the conference with some TED house rules: turn all technology off, be open to the possibilities of new ideas and people, and have fun.  The program kicked off with ETHEL, a three piece string “house band”, performing a portion of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”.

The day was divided into three parts: what happened, where are we, and where are we going.  In total, 22 speakers delivered powerful and thought-provoking messages in rapid succession.  No lengthy introductions and no question & answer session from the audience.  Each speaker had their spotlight for 10-15 minutes.  Distilling all the information from the 22 presenters was difficult to do.  Below are three presenters (one from each session) that (to me) delivered something innovative, remarkable, and actionable.

“What happened?” session: Karen Hudson, President Dairy Education Alliance, co-founder ICCAW (Illinois Citizens for Clean Air & Water): Karen and her family live in the farmland of central Illinois.  A factory farm moved next door to her home.  Along with her neighbors, she formed a group called FARM (families against rural mess) to protest and organize against the factory’s constant messes and other hidden externalities.  Her work received media and government attention that uncovered the “stinking” issues behind animal agriculture practices.

“Where are we?” session: Ian Cheney, co-founder Truck Farm, Peabody-award winning filmmaker:  Ian opened his presentation with a short video showing the audience his alternative method of urban agriculture: he turned his grandfather’s Dodge pick-up truck into a 40 square foot garden by implementing existing green roof technologies.  His truck (based in Brooklyn) has attracted chefs as well as young, urban dwellers (known as kids) to his project.  He partnered with local schools asking schoolchildren to reimagine urban agriculture.  Ian has grown enough produce to start a small, but modest, CSA for $20 a share.

“Where are we going?” session: Curt Ellis, co-founder Food Corps, Peabody award-winning filmmaker:  Curt was the only presenter that did not use any multi-media to support his presentation.  Just a man, a stage, and a microphone.  He discussed John F. Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps, an organization that celebrates a 50 year anniversary this year.  Curt modeled Food Corps after the Peace Corps with the hope that young people will want to spend a year working towards school food public service. Curt believes that school food is where it all begins and that cafeterias should be transformed into health food venues.

Of course, attending a conference about food means exceptional meals.  With all these wonderful ideas and conversations, brain power foods were much appreciated, and the meals were coordinated by the Cleaver Company.  Breakfast was a simple spread of whole grain breads and savory biscuits.  Baskets of apples were available all-day.  Hot beverages and fresh fruit juices were plentiful.  For lunch, this meal was an easy opportunity to insert a networking activity.  Lunch bags each holding five lunches were assembled for five attendees to make introductions, talk about the conference, and individual focuses.  I thoroughly enjoyed my roast beef sandwich with the most delicious salad (quinoa, black beans, and dried cranberries).  Desserts from City Bakery were waiting in the ballroom’s foyer.  An afternoon chocolate tasting with Vosges Chocolates was a welcome treat and surprise.  The day concluded with a reception  and the always appreciated goodies bag of samples and magazines-my favorite takeaways were the Cleaver Company’s homemade marshmallows and Manhattan Edible Magazine.

Leaving the event with a full stomach and a full brain, I felt very happy to have attended TEDxManhattan.  Lots of key learnings and inspiration about the future of sustainable food.  Based on follow-up emails from the Glynwood Institute, plans are underway for the 2012 conference.  I would encourage anyone interested in sustainable food and farming to apply and become a TEDx-ster.

Pictures of the event can be found here:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/tedxmanhattan

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