James Beard Foundation EVP: 'We try to include the largest food companies we can, we want to hear from them'

Photo: iStock/Astrid860

As a household name from the culinary world (thanks, Bravo and Netflix), The James Beard Foundation is using its recognition and influence to advocate for a better food system in the United States. 

Big names in the US culinary industry gathered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago last night for the annual James Beard Awards, dubbed ‘The Oscars of the food world,’ hosted by actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family fame.

Earlier that day, the organization’s top executives spoke to a room of select industry leaders about the progress and plans for its JBF Impact Program, an initiative to advocate for a better US food system that launched last year.

The organization’s constituents are primarily in foodservice and hospitality, but James Beard Foundation (JBF) executive vice president Mitchell Davis said it is very much a movement for food manufacturing as well.

“As an organization we’re always very clear that our food system includes large food manufacturers, small producers, big farmers, small farmers—there are not separate food systems, it’s one,” he told FoodNavigator-USA at the invite-only breakfast event. “And it’s not just America; it’s a global one,”

In a room of about 30 attendees, from restaurateurs to food policy nonprofit executives, the foundation presented updates from its JBF Impact Programs four key platforms: Food waste reduction, sustainable seafood, sustainable meat, and childhood nutrition.

'It's the moment for food waste reduction'

Reducing food waste has been a hot issue in the industry that gained momentum last year. The Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, backed by Nestlé, was introduced to the house to create a federal standard for expiration dates (and is still being reviewed). Additionally, a bill designed to ease barriers of donating food was introduced earlier this year.

As a guide to policy makers, the Vermont Law School and Harvard’s Food Law and Policy Clinic designed a blueprint for a national food strategy. From the industry side, venture capitalists have injected $2 million into start-up Full Harvest, which aims to be the first B2B marketplace for cosmetically rejected produce.

“It’s the moment for food waste reduction,” vice president Kris Moon told the audience. “It’s a solvable problem, it’s a nonpartisan problem, and it’s something we can really address.”

Efforts from the JBF Impact Program include creating a food-waste cookbook to be published next year, organizing boot camps for chefs on how to reduce food waste in their kitchens and businesses, and designing a food-waste curriculum for culinary school instructors.

It is also organizing an advocacy day in Washington D.C. in July to talk about the Farm Bill and its role in food waste reduction and childhood nutrition.

Restaurant industry, food delivery, and groceries as one ecosystem

At the foundation’s annual ‘issue summits,’ Davis said that large producers and CEOs of food manufacturing companies attend.

“We try to include the largest food companies we can, we feel like we want to hear from them, and I think they need to hear from some of our more usual constituents [and create] an open dialogue,” he said, referring to collaboration between members of smaller growers and producers part of a slow or local food movement with large-scale and industrial food manufacturers.

The dynamic between restaurants and grocery stores in how they compete for consumers, especially with the advent of online delivery and meal kits, has changed drastically. Meal kits may increasingly bite into protein sales, according to Nielsen data, and there has been a cultural shift in the US to value eating out with friends, which The Atlantic says represents a major challenge to grocery retail.

Hence, there tends to be rivalry between the two industries that share a food system, Davis argued, which can slow down movements to improve US and eventually global food systems.

“I think there’s been an antagonism between different parts of the food system for years, to the extent that to advocate grassroots work requires a tremendous amount of passion,” he said. “But we want to add passion and practicality to make sustainable change.”

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