As I rode the train up to New York City early yesterday so I could attend the James Beard Conference, I was thinking about this year's theme, Rethinking the Future of Food. For the future to be any different than the present, change has to happen, and I was certain the conference would cover changes being made as well as changes that need to happen.
As I scrolled through my Facebook feed a few moments later, I saw a link to an article from Business Insider: McDonald's franchisees say the brand is in a 'deep depression' and 'facing its final days.'
"Now, that's some change," I thought.
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In an effort to try to revive "seven straight quarters of same-store sales declines," McDonald's is "throwing everything they can against the wall to see what will stick," according to one franchisee. Many franchise owners are not seeing positive results from all the change, and an estimated 30 percent are now insolvent.
Add this new information to the recent report that for the first time since at least 1970, McDonald's will close more restaurants than it opens this year, and it's clear to see that change is happening. Restaurants and food companies are changing ingredients and formulas because consumers are demanding healthier food. In 2015, we've seen one announcement after another from companies making changes like Kraft removing artificial dyes from Macaroni & Cheese and Target moving traditional brands to lower shelves and putting healthier options at prime eye level.
'If it to be, it is up to us'
When the conference began, Susan Ungaro, president of The James Beard Foundation, opened up with a short welcome and reminded the audience of something she said at the end of last year's conference that is still relevant, "If it is to be, it is up to us."
"Yes!" I thought. That is what was in the back of my mind as I recalled the various announcements from food manufacturers, restaurants and retailers from this past year. These changes have been made because of us. Not because of government regulation, but because we are making it happen.
The James Beard Conference takes a broader look at the food system than simply the products on the store shelves and the outlets that are selling them. Over the course of the day, the thought leaders in the audience, as well as those of us in the media invited to cover the conference, heard speakers discuss meaningful changes that are coming from grassroots organizations, entrepreneurs, health care systems, chefs, school lunch advocates and more. Several times, people marveled at the progress that has been made in the past 10 years. There's momentum in the movement — momentum that shows no sign of slowing down.
So many different voices makes the message stronger
Most of the people we heard from were not from a government agency. One exception was Dr. Ellen Stoffan of NASA. She told us how the data NASA collects is used to help farmers all over the world become resilient to climate change. NASA's data is even used by Napa Valley vineyards to help them determine water usage. (You know my ears perked up at that bit of information. NASA and wine — I have it in my notes to find out more about this.)
Most of the people we heard from looked around at where they were in their jobs or what needs they saw in their community or their family, and started there. I'll be bringing you some stories about some of these over the next several days. I'll be writing about eating crickets, again. I'll be taking a look at an app that helps diners make choices about where to eat based on the working conditions for the restaurant's staff.
If you're eager to know the specifics of the entire conference, you can watch the videos of the two-day 2015 James Beard Food Conference. I was unable to stay for day two, but I've started catching up on some of it already.
But, beyond the conference, I want you to think about the 10 two-letter words that Susan Ungaro said, "If it is to be, it is up to us." Change is happening all across our food systems, change that's being led by consumers and advocates, innovators and entrepreneurs. There is still so much change that needs to happen so that everyone has the ability to eat good food now and in future generations, and it's up to us. We're pushing the food system in a positive direction and we need to keep it up.
(While I was writing this, I received an email informing me that Subway just announced it will be going antibiotic-free with all its meats. Just last month, a report card came out that gave Subway, and several other fast food chains, an "F" because it sources meat from animals that have been given antibiotics, whether they are sick or not. This is what happens when you have momentum. The company changed the way it's sourcing because it sees the way consumers are moving and it's going with the consumers.)