Food Tank recently had the opportunity to speak with Jesse Solomon, Founder and CEO of Emmer & Co., who will be speaking at the summit.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to get involved in food and agriculture?
Jesse Solomon (JS): Seven years ago, I became mostly a vegetarian because I couldn’t trust what I was eating. Labels have become confusing, unclear, and unrepresentative of how the food was produced, and I could no longer separate fact from fiction. I chose to only eat meat I hunted myself so that I could know it was the purest possible, and that the animal lived a natural life. Through hunting, I discovered a connection to my food I never had before, and found out how amazing wild game tasted. I would always bring meat back from the field to share with family and friends, and little by little helped them to reconnect with where food comes from.
I wanted to replicate that experience for as many people as possible. I wanted to provide food that you didn’t have to question—you would know it was pure, healthy, and part of the best possible alternative system. Not too long ago, everything we ate came from someplace, or someone, we knew. Our eggs came from our own backyards, our meat came from our local butcher, and our fish from our nearby river. There was no such thing as eating “local” or eating “organic”—it was just called eating. I believe what we’re doing at Emmer & Co. will help us get back to that.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity to fix the food system?
JS: Every day, there are about 10,000 babies born in America. That’s 10,000 new little people that have never known what a food system is. They don’t know what genetically modified means. They don’t know what highly processed means. Every day there are 10,000 opportunities to start again. We should never think that we can’t change a system, or that it seems insurmountable. We are the food system. We can decide better. We live in an age where information can spread quickly, so the biggest opportunity is our ability to educate consumers about how to choose and demand the right food. With increased transparency around the way our current food is produced, and by sharing the news that better options and methods are available, we’ll be able to start a revolution that can fix our broken food system.
FT: What innovations in agriculture and the food system are you most excited about?
JS: “Innovation” is a funny word for us, because most of what we do on the production side is getting back to practices that have existed for a hundred years. Maybe I’m excited that more people are realizing that we can go back to how things used to be, and that’s better, and that is actually progress. I do like any new company that’s tackling other serious issues like food waste, food access, and healthy school food.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero that inspired you?
JS: Frank was the first farmer we started working with. He’s been raising heritage chickens since he was a child and comes from generations of poultry farmers. Frank has spent his entire life preserving the same genetics that the breeder before him preserved, and the breeder before him, all the way back to the late 1800s. Like many farmers, he also has another job to pay many of his bills. When I’m there helping him on the farm, he’ll always come back from work only to start working again; caring for the chickens, ensuring they’re well fed and healthy. Sometimes I don’t know how he keeps going, and if you asked him how, he’d probably just say, “Well, I love these birds.” His dedication to preserving biodiversity and to being an outspoken bannerman for the heritage movement inspires me.
FT: What drives you every day to fight for the bettering of our food system?
JS: Henry. Evelyn. George. Titus. My one-month-old baby nephew. My farmers’ children. We inherited a world our parents left us, and every day I think about what we’re going to be leaving them. For whatever small role I can play in passing down a better world, I’m going to create a food company that can feed these kids the best possible food and leave them with a rebuilt production system.
FT: What’s the biggest problem within the food system our parents and grandparents didn’t have to deal with?
JS: My grandmother still tells me stories about how when she was a girl in the Bronx, she would walk to school and hear chickens in most people’s backyards. And every Sunday she’d go with her mother to the local butcher to pick out a live chicken for dinner. That direct connection with our food in a major city used to exist, and it doesn’t really anymore. How many kids today have seen a live chicken? When an industry goes behind a dark curtain, it’s impossible to have a feedback loop that ensures the system is acting in the consumer’s best interests and desires.
FT: What’s the first, most pressing issue you’d like to see solved within the food system?
JS: The food system is pretty complex with many very different parts to it. For us in chicken production, what we would like to see change is, I’m sure, different from someone working in other areas. But one of the major shifts that I’d like to see changed is the relationship between farmers and the companies they work for. We can’t live without farmers, and yet many of them are living paycheck to paycheck. And the power dynamics between large companies and growers often shift a lot of financial risk onto small, family farms. We need to be asking ourselves what we value and why, and then work towards more balanced relationships.
FT: What is one small change every person can make in their daily lives to make a big difference?
JS: Ask where your food comes from. You can participate in improving the system simply by asking. Let’s say you ask a store employee where something is from, and they don’t know so they ask their manager, and their manager doesn’t know so they ask their buyer. That’s three more people that are now thinking about how the food was produced. And if you ask where something is from and it turns out it’s from a large industrial source, and you still want to buy it or eat it—at least you know. But ask. And hopefully, one day, if you don’t like the answer you’re hearing, you decide to make a different choice. You have more power to impact the conversation than you realize.
FT: What’s one issue within the food system you’d like to see completely solved for the next generation?
JS: I know you asked for one, but these two are related: lack of choice and food deserts. The freedom to choose what and how you want to eat is something that should be an obvious right in this country. And yet it’s not. The big food companies have created a system where they control most of what gets put in front of consumers. And there’s often very little access to food that’s good for you and the animal it came from and that was produced responsibly. Many people in our country have even less choice, because fast food, processed foods, and highly industrialized food is all that’s available where they live. No one should be forced into choosing the “best of the worst.” We can do better.
FT: What agricultural issue would you like for the next president of the United States to immediately address?
JS: Stricter, representative requirements for labeling and imagery in food marketing. It is far too easy for companies to use verbiage and graphics that convey a perfect utopian “ghost farm” when the opposite is true. Consumers deserve an accurate depiction of how the food was produced and where the animal lived. If packaging showed where food really came from, would consumers still make the same choices?
Join the discussion using #FoodTank across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter!