The South by Southwest Interactive Conference drew hundreds of food professionals, mostly to the Driskill Hotel, which was home base for the conference’s SouthBites track. Here are recaps from two panels over the weekend. Go to food.blog.austin360.com for more recaps, videos and scene reports.
Andrew Zimmern, the former chef and television host behind “Bizarre Foods,” and Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, returned to South by Southwest Interactive this year to follow up on a conversation they’ve been having for years about how to transform the food system.
Last year, the pair presented together at SXSW about eating less meat. This year, the subject was the global food system at large, the problems it faces and how innovation might be able to solve some of those problems.
“Eating well is a class issue,” Zimmern said. We talk about people in the U.S. not having access to food, but that problem is exacerbated in countries where there is civil or political strife, or mass migration issues.
“People are starving because of distribution, but they live in parts of the world where everything grows year round,” Zimmern said.
Tetrick, whose company had a high-profile run-in with the FDA last year about whether Hampton Creek could call an egg-free sandwich spread mayo (his company won), had lots of encouragement for the makers and entrepreneurs in the room.
“There are so many opportunities for social good in food entrepreneurship,” Tetrick said. “Not enough smart people who want to be makers are looking at the world of food. You can make money and do good at the same time.”
After receiving questions from attendees about his thoughts on equitable nutrition, food waste and training new farmers, Tetrick pointed out that all of those questions represent problems in food that need more people trying to solve.
For example, growing different kinds of crops — and creating market opportunities to use those crops — could help vulnerable communities handle climate change and disruptions to the market.
“We can hire farmers in third- and fourth-world countries to grow the crops needed to make things like Hampton Creek products and sell it at a price that low-income Americans can afford,” Tetrick said.
Tetrick said that although he understands why people rally around a single food issue, such as genetically modified crops, we can spark greater global change when we understand and think about the food system as a whole, and from perspectives that are not our own.
Zimmern and Tetrick, who are both white, addressed their privilege and talked openly about the race and class implications of this conversation about food. Even though they both operate in a food world driven by people who already have money and access to just about any kind of food imaginable, they were persuasive in their passion for making food more equitable for everyone. “How do we make it easy for a single mom in Alabama on food stamps to eat well? We think about that every day,” Tetrick said.
Cutting down on food waste
On a dairy farm in Vermont, the circular economy is thriving.
That’s the term for an industrial system that produces no waste. Though closed loop systems are a goal for many manufacturing companies, in the food industry, gaps in the system have led to massive quantities of food waste.
Just how massive? More than 133 billion pounds of food, about 40 percent of the amount of food that moves through the U.S. food system.
We’ve seen a major push in the past few years for consumers to love their leftovers, buy only what they need, compost the food waste they do produce and, in the face of details about their inaccuracy, even ignore expiration dates.
So what can we learn from a dairy farm in Vermont about reducing food waste? Farmer Marie Audet, who on Sunday joined panelists from Feeding America, Kroger and the Environmental Protection Agency at South by Southwest, explained how they’ve tweaked their farm to create more energy than it uses.
The 130 or so cows produce milk for sale, but their waste is converted into energy, and the byproducts of that process are used as fertilizer for the soil and bedding for the cows. Audet said that by converting that waste into fuel, they produce enough energy for 400 to 500 homes.
It isn’t enough to make safe, affordable milk any more, she said. Today, she has to do so in a way that has as little environmental impact as possible. Twenty percent of her cows’ diet comes from food waste, including pellets made with citrus pulp leftover from juicing or spent grains from beer brewing.
At Kroger, the largest traditional grocer in the U.S. but which has only a few locations in Texas, the store donates millions of pounds to food banks in the Feeding America network. Most grocery stores donate their excess food to food banks, but Kroger takes it a step further by turning food it can’t donate into biogas, a compressed natural gas that powers trucks and stores.
One of the greatest barriers to reducing food waste is changing consumer expectations. Suzanne Lindsay-Walker, the director of sustainability with Kroger, said that they have to meet customer demands for the perfect shiny apple but that many stores now sell imperfect produce at a reduced price.
“Those cultural norms are starting to shift,” she said. “We all have a part to play in this.”
The panel moderator, Ashley Zanolli with the EPA, talked about how different kinds of cooks contribute to the food waste problems, from the adventurous overachieving cook who might buy too much at the store and not be able to use it all before it goes bad to the cautious cook who tosses anything even close to an expiration date or who looks at a piece of produce past its prime and throws it away, rather than find a way to utilize it in a soup or a smoothie.