A Look Back: TEDxManhattan "Changing the Way We Eat"

By Rosalin Luetum

On a snowy Saturday morning in January, hundreds of people filled the swank auditorium of The New York Times building for "TEDxManhattan: Changing the Way We Eat."  In its second year, TEDxManhattan centers around the sustainable food movement, where inspiring and illuminating talks are given by speakers with various backgrounds in food and farming.  Attendees included farmers, philanthropists, academics, educators, students, health professionals, chefs and bakers, while those unable to attend were able to access the day's events via live webcast and local viewing parties.  Whether physically present or not, audiences left the storm outside to gather in the hearth of ideas, conversation and inspiration.

The conference was presented in three sessions, Issues, Impact, and Innovation.  Session 1, Issues, featured eye-opening looks at farm practices, the importance of soil, food accessibility and product labeling.  Among the compelling talks was that of Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, who shed a light on farming consolidation in the poultry industry.  Hauter pointed out that 40 percent of chicken growers live below poverty level, describing their plight as "a story of modern-day sharecropping and indentured servants."

Session 2, Impact, was an invigorating afternoon exploring how the issues of today – and how they are handled – affect and will affect future generations.  In Mitchell Davis's talk, "How Taste Affects Food Behavior," Davis shared an anecdote about gardening with his daughter to illustrate how "taste is about family's values."  In other words, food lifestyle habits are adopted in practice:  children learn about eating smart and food quality at the family dinner table.   Older generations must ensure young ones are equipped with the knowledge to lead healthy lives. 

Another Impact session speaker, Stephen Ritz, did just that.  Ritz gave a moving presentation about how he taught Bronx students to farm edible food walls.  In addition to introducing unfamiliar produce to the class, Ritz's project instilled a newfound confidence in his students that led to a 90 percent attendance rate (up from 40 percent) and a number of personal and academic breakthroughs.  You can watch the full 15-minute video of his talk – which garnered a standing ovation from the entire auditorium.

The day closed with a motivating Session 3, Ideas.  The last cluster of talks presented new products and organizations working to improve the food system.  Cara Rosaen, co-founder of RealTimeFarms.com, an online resource to find out where local restaurant foods come from, suggested to "change the way people eat by exciting them, engaging them; not by judging them."  Kavita Shukla, inventor and founder of Fenugreen, told a charming story of how her grandmother inspired her to create natural food packaging as a response to the global challenge of food spoilage.  Fenugreen uses naturally treated sheets of paper that, when placed with produce in the refrigerator, is a sustainable method to keeping food fresher longer.

Perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from TEDxManhattan was seeing how similarly minded people came up with such brilliant ways to work towards a better food future.  If we can continue the conversation in the days, months, and years to come – exploring issues, presenting new opportunities, and overcoming obstacles – we can consistently live (and do) better than we did before.  It's probably safe to say that that's an idea everyone can get behind.

To watch additional videos from TEDxManhattan 2012 and learn more about "Changing the Way We Eat," visit www.tedxmanhattan.org.