Food Tank, in partnership with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is hosting the 1st Annual Chicago Food Tank Summit on November 16, 2016.
This event will feature more than 40 different speakers from the food and agriculture field. Researchers, farmers, chefs, policymakers, government officials, and students will come together for interactive panels, networking, and delicious food, followed by a day of hands-on activities and opportunities for attendees.
Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Emily Zack, Farm Manager at the Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Campus, who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Emily Zack (EZ): I’ve always loved working outside and with plants and thought I would go into landscape design, but I fell in love with fruit and vegetable production. My family has always had a big garden, and I grew up harvesting from it for dinner. When I read the average American meal travels 1,500 miles, I knew I could do better. I think growing your own food makes you want to eat closer to home. Why bring in beef from South America and squash from California to pair with beets from the backyard? A lot of satisfaction is to be had eating “farm to table” every day.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
EZ: Factory farming produces more CO2 than fossil fuels. We can bike to work as much as we want but that cheap hamburger is doing way more harm. Not to mention polluting our water, rainforest clearing for grazing, overuse of antibiotics and growth hormones, plus the terrible treatment the animals endure. This applies to poultry and pork, as well. Unfortunately, as long as the public demands cheap and fast food, there will be a need for factory farms. I think the secret is just eating less meat. As much as I admire vegans and vegetarians, I love meat too much to give it up entirely. So, I have plant-based proteins for a few meals per week to lessen my meat intake. We only buy meat from the farmer’s market and it’s expensive, so that really helps us not eat it every day—we can’t afford it! Every little change helps.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
EZ: Living in the Midwest, specifically Northern Illinois, we are surrounded by conventional corn and soy fields. Farmers are set in their ways by using GMO seed, spraying with toxic herbicides, and replenishing the soils with liquid nitrogen, and they really don’t see a different way. I went to a seminar in January by The Land Connection that discussed transitioning to organic grains. It was beautiful to see a room full of all ages of farmers interested in making this change. It is possible to have high yields, high profit, and a successful farm growing this way, and people are starting to warm up to the idea. Growing organically may take a little more time, but the rewards are totally worth it. If the public demands it, they will have to grow more!
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
EZ: I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, and it changed everything for me. I had always been knowledgeable about food in terms of nutrition but not how far it traveled or how it was raised. From there I read Michael Pollan and Joel Saladin, watched the documentaries, and started actually eating this way. It takes a little time to figure your way around it all, but I swear our food tastes better! My husband is a wonderful cook and we make it a goal to eat as close to home as possible for every meal. Of course, we cheat, but the secret is the majority of the time we don’t!
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
EZ: I hate that big business wins in our food fight. Giant corporations in agriculture, meat, and chemical decide what we eat, how we eat, and even how our food is labeled. We as consumers can stand up by buying only products that fit into our strict guidelines: non-GMO, organic, local, humanely raised, etc. We can shop primarily at farmer’s markets and grow our own food, but until consumers make a huge change in how we eat and what we eat, the system will not change. We are also inundated with information sponsored by these big corporations that is not always accurate and very biased. It is difficult to figure out what is best and what is truth.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
EZ: Everything is different from a generation ago. People can say GMOs aren’t a concern to our health but the excessive amounts of toxic herbicides that are sprayed on our corn and soy most certainly is. The bees are dying, the pollinators don’t have the flowers they once did, and the worst part is that GMOs are in everything. Corn and soy is in so much of what we eat on a daily basis, and the long-term effects are impossible to measure at this time. Food is highly processed, full of additives and fillers, and unless one knows how to cook (or wants to cook), impossible to avoid. It’s like the bumper sticker says, “Eat organic food, or as your grandparents called it, food.”
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
EZ: Bees, pollinators, and their loss of habitat. We spray toxic herbicides to keep our corn and soy fields weed-free then use dangerous pesticides to keep them pest-free. We spray our lawns to rid of dandelions and our golf courses are pristine. Bees, monarchs, beneficial insects, and pollinators have nowhere to land, eat, or lay eggs. When we kill the weeds, we are killing the milkweed and the native flowers. When we blanket our plants in pesticides, we kill all the insects on them, even the beneficial ones. If we don’t have bees, we don’t have 90 percent of our fruits and vegetables, as they depend on them to fruit by pollinating their flowers. Dandelions are the first blooming flower our bees have in early spring, embrace them.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
EZ: Eat less meat. Americans love meat—we eat it three times a day and, almost exclusively, it is inexpensive and from factory farms. Yes, the meat from our farmers’ markets is considerably more expensive, but the secret is to eat less. Plant-based proteins are all over the markets and are very affordable. We grow an heirloom soybean in the garden that can also be a meat substitute with its high amount of protein. These plant-based proteins are also low in fat and cholesterol; better for our health and the health of the earth.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
EZ: I would love to see a conversation happening about our food systems across our country in each home. People don’t see a problem loading their shopping carts with highly processed sugars, meats, and GMOs and food that is way too cheap. I guess I’d love to see the next generation more interested in real food by home cooking, growing food, and eating food produced close to home. It’s an education that’s tough to teach and would take a completely new mindset, but we have to start somewhere. Eating seasonally should also be taken into consideration. It’s difficult to only eat close to home in the Midwest; we would have nothing fresh to eat for the entire winter. But we can eat seasonally by following what is coming out of the warm states year round. Florida oranges in January, California grapes in June, Michigan stone fruit all summer, and Washington (or Illinois) apples late into fall. One can’t eat a fresh strawberry in February eating this way, and we need to realize that’s ok, their time will come! I talk about eating sustainably in the home to every tour group that comes to my gardens: education and baby steps.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
EZ: To say a shutdown of factory farms or to abolish the use of toxic herbicides on our crops is impossible to accomplish in the world we live in now. I would like the next president to at least acknowledge the need to label food honestly, a truth in labeling push that would include labeling GMOs. It would be a small, first step in telling big agriculture and big chemical companies that they do not make all the rules, we as consumers make the rules. “All natural” can include high-fructose corn syrup, GMO soybeans, artificial coloring, and flavorings. That label means nothing but the average person doesn’t know that. I would love to see the FDA work for us and our health and the health of the planet, not just for big corporations and their profits. Just think of what a truth in labeling could do to educate the average person on their food choices when it comes to their health and their waistline—I’d like to think a lot.
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Sponsors for this year’s Food Tank Summit in Chicago include: Almond Board of California, Annie’s Inc., Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Blue Apron, Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Clif Bar & Company, Driscoll’s, Elevation Burger, Farmer’s Fridge, Food and Environment Reporting Network, Inter Press Service (IPS), Niman Ranch, and Organic Valley. More to be announced soon.
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