Recap: TedX Manhattan 2015

“The food movement needs money,” announced Shen Tong to hundreds of attendees at last weekend’s TedX Manhattan. He paused, thanked the crowd, and pretended to walk off the stage as if to end his talk there. “That’s probably the shortest TED talk you’ll ever hear,” he said. Virtually everyone at the one-day conference clapped and cheered at the investor and Food-X founder’s point (and it wasn’t the end of his talk). And while the food movement does need investment, it’s not as simple as writing a check.

For the last five years, a select group of food movement luminaries has flocked to this annual event, where they invest time in a larger conversation about solutions to an ailing food system. TEDx Manhattan’s theme “Changing The Way We Eat,” hasn’t changed, but it remains full of new energy and ideas.

Here are some of the highlights of the day (see the full list of speakers here):

1. Anim Steel on Community Leadership

Anim Steel asked two questions of the crowd: “What would it mean to have a vision of the food movement that is as deep as the problem?” And: “How can we break through big structural problems with bold structural moves?” Steel is the founder of Real Food Challenge, a non-profit that hopes to take $1 billion of college food funds and direct them to local, fair, and sustainable sources over the next 10 years. He laid forth what he sees as essential ideas to get us there: Expand the base of people who own farmland, inspire people to take leadership in their communities’ futures, and find linkages between separate causes. But his vision is broader than food. “If we’re successful, we won’t just change the way that we eat. We’ll change the way we live and treat each other,” he said.

2. Ali Partovi on Scaling up Organic Farmland

“Why does organic food cost more than conventional?” asked Ali Partovi. One reason is that the demand for organic has outstripped our supply. Between 4-5 percent of the food we eat in the U.S. is organic, but only 1 percent is actually grown here. Until we have more organic farms producing more food, says Partovi–an investor and partner in Farmland LP, which converts traditional farmland to organic–we’ll continue to depend on countries like India and China to fill the gaps. “We need both business innovation and policy change to support organic food,” he said.

3. Stephen Reily on Building Food Ports

Stephen Reily, the director of Seed Capital Kentucky, talked about the hunger many Americans feel to “rebuild a sense of community between farmers and ourselves.” Reily is behind FoodPort in West Louisville, a project that is being called the nation’s largest food hub.  The all-in-one concept would place existing food businesses along the local food supply chain–everything from a farm to a packing plant to a restaurant and compost facility–in a collaborative model of shared resources and assets. This is Reily’s second project, but through his first, which was a simpler food hub, he learned the following  lessons:

  1. Demand for local is everywhere.
  2. Food hubs can’t be the only answer.
  3. Raising capital may not be the problem.
  4. Maybe we just need infrastructure.
  5. Economic development tools can be community development tools too.

4. Michele Merkel on Holding Big Food Accountable

Michele Merkel of Food & Water Watch was one of the standout speakers. A lawyer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) until she was asked to stop investigating a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), Merkel said:  “I quit my job at the EPA, because I couldn’t do my job; and now I sue them. The factory farm fight is pitting neighbor against neighbor, family against family all across this country.”  Why? Because 15 years later the farmers are still suffering from the same facilities and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for citizens to obtain justice in all three branches of the government,” she said. Merkel didn’t mince words when she challenged everyone watching to go from being a passive eater to a food movement organizer. “Eaters must join farmers to save America’s food system and restore democracy,” she said.

Read the full piece, originally published for Civil Eats