My Two Dans

A friend once told me that she thinks our generation is missing mega-heroes. “Of course, of course,” she agreed to the point that there are countless men and women doing world-changing work. Still, she insited that we are lacking that charismatic, almost mythic leader – Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela – who can unite and energize a movement towards a common goal.

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Well, chef Dan Barber (left) and environmental and food writer Dan Imhoff (right) might not yet be household names, but after a mere hour in their presence last week, I felt a renewed fire to change the world.

Barber and Imhoff were the featured speakers last Wednesday on an NYU-sponsored panel called, “Sustainable Agriculture vs. Industrial Food. ” Despite the 4:00pm weekday start time and lackluster title, the room was packed to capacity – testament both to the mushrooming interest in all things food (and the impending Farm Bill vote), and also to Barber and Imhoff’s growing star power. Here’s what these, if I may, budding heroes had to say:

Dan Barber is the chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in upstate New York, a farm, restaurant, and educational center that was originally created through a Rockefeller endowment to ensure that city children had a place to go where they could still interact with nature and farm life. “It’s amazing that 100 years later we are facing the same issues,” Dan said.

fourseason.jpgBarber relates to the sustainable food world as a chef who works closely with food suppliers, both large and amalgamated, as well as small and family owned. He believes that, the choices we make around food have a profound effect on the way the world is used. Unfortunately, it can be difficult – and expensive – to make the “local” choice.

Barber sited the shocking example that purchasing the carrots from Stone Barns’ garden, which sits only a few 100 feet from his kitchen, is more expensive than buying organic carrots shipped in from Oxaca. “The Farm Bill [which priviliges large-scale farmers growing commodity crops like wheat, corn, soy, rice, and cotton and overlooks smaller vegetable and fruit farmers] wrote the rules that dicated that,” he said. Listening to Barber speak, I rememberd the extent to which my own food choices truly do matter (Let’s see, CSA share, farmers’ market shopper, herbs growing on my windowsill, check.). I also realized how incredibly vital it is to get engaged politically in food issues. (Ummmm…check? I admit that, until this summer, I would not have been able to give a coherent explanation about what the Farm Bill was, let alone why it mattered so much.)

On Friday, the House passed the five-year, $286 billion Farm Bill that, despite a few reforms, continued to favor commodity farmers. With the bill now headed to the Senate, where further reforms can be made, now is the time to get involved.

Dan Imhoff is a writer and publisher who co-founded, Watershed Media, which produces “action-oriented, visually dynamic communication resources to influence the transition to a sustainable society.” He recently authored, Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to the Farm Bill. If you purchase Food Fight by clicking the link to the right of this post, Hazon will receive a small portion of the proceeds through Amazon.com.

foodfight.jpgImhoff described the Food Bill as the nervous system of the entire food system, explaining how the community of reform activists is asking for a mere $50 million dollars of reform (to be spread over 50 states), while tens of billions of dollars are slated to subsidize the large commodity crops which become the raw material of the processed foods that feed the majority of our country.

He also described the plight of the mid-sized farmer – those who are too big to sell at farmers’ markets and through CSAs, and too small to benefit from the commodity subsidies. It utterly blew my mind to find out that the mid-sized farmers own 80% of all farm land in the U.S.!

When asked why he started writing about food and environmental issues, Imhoff said, “I look for the thread that, when pulled, turns out to have the whole world attached to it.” (As a journalist, lines like that make me swoon.) Food Fight is an amazing example of a book that exposes the whole world, as food is connected to social justice, sustainability, community vitality, health and nutrition, workers’ rights…

Neither of these “Dans” have achieved mythic status – infact, you might describe them as “grounded” (pun intended).  Their primary messages: get informed, eat well, and get active are simple, but through their respective mediums, cooking and writing, they have tapped into an emotional truth that inspires people to change the way they eat and change the world.  And in my mind that makes them bonafide food heroes.

–Speaking of food heroes, check out Professor Marion Nestle’s (above, right) new blog, What to Eat.  Marion is the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health who introduced “the Dans” on Wednesday and often sits on similar panels.

–Also, check out this article about Dan Barber by Joshua Yaffa in The Forward – where Barber talks about food, sustainability, and Jewish tradition.

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