Esca Bona, an annual conference working for collaborative food system change through innovation, will return to Austin, Texas, for its third year in October 2017. The event is organized by New Hope Network, which hosts several natural products shows and expos around the country each year and aims to grow healthy markets and help businesses find opportunities to bring healthier food and products to more people. Speakers at this year’s Esca Bona include writer and activist Raj Patel; Debra Eschmeyer, former senior White House policy advisor for nutrition; Shen Tong, managing partner of FoodFutureCo; Lauren Nixon, food educator and poet; and Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg.
According to New Hope Network’s Senior Vice President of Content and Insights, Carlotta Mast, Esca Bona is “a platform to bring together a diverse group of Good Food Renegades. This includes entrepreneurs, people from the largest food companies, suppliers, farmers, investors, and others who are working on fixing the broken food system, in the United States and across the world.”
Esca Bona 2017, says Mast, will focus especially on increasing access to healthy and affordable food. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Mast about why she sees Esca Bona as particularly unique. “This gathering includes all the players in the food system who are working to create positive change in the food system and engages them in team activities and collaborative sessions to think through real-world food system problems.” Mast spoke of the food industry’s role in addressing food access, issues with food supply, and Esca Bona’s aims for affecting food system change.
Food Tank (FT): What inspired you to create Esca Bona and what impact do you want it to have on the food system?
Carlotta Mast (CM): We created Esca Bona in 2015 out of the inspiration to create an event to bring together all of the different players within the food system who are working to fix big food system challenges, both in the U.S. and globally. We wanted to bring them together to learn from each other and to begin building relationships that would start to accelerate the impact they can have on fixing the food system.
New Hope Network puts on Natural Product Expos as well as other conferences, and we knew that lots of people in the food and CPG industries were attending our events. But these events have become so big that it’s hard to find the time and space to really dig into the challenges that we know many in our industry are targeting. We wanted to have a more intimate, focused event for creatively thinking about these issues.
Ultimately, we view Esca Bona as more than a once a year event. We see it as a platform within the Good Food Movement—a platform that connects the entrepreneurs, people from the larger food companies, investors, farmers, suppliers, and others within the ecosystem throughout the year as they face challenges. These challenges include everything from growing organic and regenerative supply to creating a more transparent and traceable food system to addressing big issues like climate change and food access. The network formed at Esca Bona uses many different perspectives to answer one question: How do we get healthy, real food to more people throughout the U.S. and across the globe?
FT: What challenges to rebuilding the food system do you find most challenging, and how can Esca Bona and its participants address them?
CM: A couple of challenges seem particularly pervasive. First is growing supply. Right now demand for organic food and organic ingredients is well outpacing supply. We need to consider how we can, as an industry, put more effort into growing supply to the level of demand. Growing supply will require engaging more farmers and showing them the opportunities that accompany growing consumer demand for organic.
We also need to think about getting prices down for organic foods. That is a really big challenge and one we have tackled at Esca Bona.
At Esca Bona 2017, we will heavily focus on what I think is perhaps the biggest challenge: growing access to healthy food. Right now demand for healthy food is growing, but there’s still a gaping divide between those who can afford healthy food and have access to healthy food, and those for whom healthy food is out of reach because it’s unaffordable, unavailable, or not culturally accessible. We are excited to see the unique perspectives and solutions the Esca Bona participants will bring to this challenge.
FT: What role does the food industry have in addressing food access problems?
CM: The food industry plays a tremendous role, including in supporting the supply of organics. There are several companies taking ownership of this important role. The work of General Mills, for example, to support organic farmers and increase organic supply is a big step to addressing organic food access.
The food industry also has the opportunity and responsibility to look at consumers in a different way. Certainly for natural and organic food companies, there traditionally has been a target consumer base that is not necessarily very diverse. I don’t think a lot of brands have been focused on how to get their products to more people—to those outside that target consumer base. We want to open up that conversation at Esca Bona and urge companies to begin considering the opportunities for their individual brands with other consumers.
The food industry also has a responsibility to work collaboratively to solve food system problems. By inviting all the players in the food system, including large food companies, Esca Bona is doing something unique, particularly within the natural products industry. One of the things we’ll be focused on this year is how important it is for the large players and the small players to work together to address these challenges. Sometimes the large food companies are not invited to the table. At Esca Bona, it’s not an ‘us versus them’ situation. It’s about how we can collaborate and come together to drive change.
FT: One of this year’s Esca Bona focus topics is the role of technology, innovation, and consumer activation for change. What do you find is the most difficult part of changing consumers’ mindsets about their food and where it comes from?
CM: There has definitely been an awakening at a broad consumer level. More and more people are paying attention to the importance of food and the importance of where their food comes from. And that awakening seems to be accelerating, in part because of technology; we now have access to so much more information about whatever brands or products we are interested in and where they come from. If we can’t find that information, we might begin to question that brand or product because of that lack of information.
Although that awakening is happening, there is still this divide among consumers, with a sizable group lacking access to affordable, healthy food. Maybe they’re in a food desert, where they can shop for food only at a convenience store, leaving them with access only to really cheap, highly-processed, nutrient-devoid food. This consumer base doesn’t have the luxury to think about the things other consumers are considering. I think increasing education and outreach to those communities is vital so that, in addition to providing access to food, there’s more education about the importance of food in our lives and the importance of what you put in your body.
That is a big part of the work of Ron Finley, the Gangster Gardener in Los Angeles. He’s been involved in Esca Bona for the last two years, and he has focused on educating his community on healthy food, and also on how food can empower the community and help people take control of their lives by gaining greater food independence, food justice, and equality.
FT: Now in year three, what new or different things will be happening at Esca Bona 2017?
CM: One of the hallmarks of Esca Bona is the incorporation of the non-traditional conference components of the program. It’s not just a ‘sit-and-get’ event, where you’re listening and not participating. We think of everyone as a participant, and we’ll be adding more of those interactive elements this year.
Last year, we worked with Future Partners to do an innovation blitz during Esca Bona. Attendees divided into groups of six or seven, and the teams addressed this challenge statement: ‘How might we fix the broken food system so that food is healthier, more sustainable, and more just come 2025?;’ Teams were composed of participants who didn’t know each other ahead of time: investors working with farmers, working with CEOs of small companies and large companies. These diverse teams worked through a variety of drills based on the challenge statement, with each team focusing on the statement from a different lens. For example, one team thought in terms of fixing the food system by encouraging more people to adopt plant-rich diets. Others looked at how you could use food technology to fix the broken system. Others were looking at it from a supply standpoint.
The final drill was to create a 48-second film capturing each team’s big idea for achieving the challenge statement. The videos are posted online, and it was amazing what they were able to create.
We’re still working on the details for this year, but what we’d like to do is a House of Genius-inspired exercise, where entrepreneurs present a challenge they’re facing in their business to other participants at Esca Bona. Those participants would ask questions, probe into all the dimensions of the problem, and brainstorm solutions to the challenge. We’re finding entrepreneurs who are really focused on challenges related to growing access to food—issues like how to fund a business or how to change consumer mindsets—to present to participants and spur discussion and collaboration on real-life challenges.
FT: How can food consumers get involved or join the Esca Bona movement for food system change?
CM: I’ll have more to share on this as the event approaches, but one exciting thing we’re doing is partnering with a group of influencers—bloggers and others really focused on access issues and the kinds of issues that Esca Bona covers—to launch an influencer campaign. This group of influencers will each have some kind of a challenge for their readers at the consumer level to get them thinking about food access and food access issues. This will be the first time that we’re doing direct outreach at the consumer level to start stirring this conversation amongst the general public. We hope this can activate some new consumer behavior!
We will have a livestream of the conference again this year, so consumers will also be able to tune in online to see all the great conversations, presentations, and collaboration that is going on during Esca Bona 2017.
Food Tank readers can receive a discount by registering here for Esca Bona 2017 using the coupon code EB17_WeDisrupt.