Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Ashley Koff (AK): Inspirations have come into my life from youth—my earliest jobs (creating kids camp in the neighborhood and making Play-Doh from scratch, grocery bagger, cashier, restaurants), post-college work in advertising for global food brands (today’s work is a mea culpa for this), my own health interests (wanting to address digestive issues and anxiety and a bout with skin issues), and learning that not all food is produced the same way today (thanks to resources like Rodale Institute, The Organic Center, and companies who invited me to their farms around the world). The more I learned and applied—personally as well as later with patients—the more I became inspired to enable the change we need to see to achieve better health for all from better food, which begins with better agriculture.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
AK: Not letting perfect be the enemy of better. Evaluating innovations with an eye to what it will mean for the future—resources, impact, availability. By discussing this with each guest on our podcast, “Take Out with Ashley and Robyn,” I have learned that the best answers and successes come from people and organizations that are committed to “better,” not “perfect.” As with any system, the dynamic nature of it prevents a static solution, which is what “perfect” really is, because what is perfect today most likely won’t be: A) achievable for all, or B) perfect tomorrow.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
AK: Following on the theme of “better” versus “perfect,” I am loving the focus on imperfect produce and the innovations to bring these fruits and vegetables, in their whole food forms, to more people. I also love the value being put on supporting farmers who are transitioning to organic—for those three or more years, people should be happy to consume their products with an eye to how much this will do to secure a better food future for all.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
AK: Well, we have over 20 podcasts and this only taps the start of my food heroes and their stories, so it’s really hard to pick one. Instead, I want to give a shout out to a young man I met while taking him and his classmates and their parents to a cooking class in Los Angeles. He had never cooked anything. He was terrified. I have never seen someone have so much fun mashing avocados for guacamole. While we mashed, he laughed so loud and later his mom told me she can’t remember the last time he laughed. He’s a hero to me because he embraced his fear, mashed like a champ, and had fun playing with his food. Well, I would like to acknowledge the avocado in this story, too, for being a food hero to me—for enabling laughter, education, empowerment, and fun.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
AK: The fact that we know what better nutrition is and is not, and that it should be a right for all. We all win when everyone has better health, and essential to that is better food.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
AK: Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. What we can do to food, to the earth, in a chemistry lab should not be served on anyone’s plate.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
AK: Access and education. It’s impossible to separate these two. You can’t tell someone what is good for them when they don’t have access to that food. You can’t give people food choices but not have them understand why it provides better nutrition or know what to do with that food to make it enjoyable.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
AK: Focus on the quality of what you eat most often.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
AK: Marketing that replaces education. We need to reign in what companies can say about their food products, even food “boards.” It isn’t about one berry or one nut being better than others, it’s about what we shouldn’t be consuming, and no company is going to tell you they have something in their food that you shouldn’t be consuming, so that message needs to be conveyed as loudly as the marketers’ story of what they want you to know.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
AK: I don’t think it falls on the next president to solve an agricultural issue, but rather to challenge congress to evaluate any agricultural decision based on several issues, including insights about human health today and in the future, as well as the health of our resources, as opposed to just a few big companies or organizations with direct financial interest in specific agricultural practices.
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