Is Better Food the Prescription for a Healthier America?

This above question is the subtitle of the James Beard Foundation’s (JBF) upcoming annual food conference October 27 and 28, and although military generals, studies, and common sense answer yes, the inquiry merits further discussion.

The JBF is the country’s preeminent food organization, at the center of the US culinary community. Although I expected to be surrounded by only my fellow gastronomic devotees at last year’s conference on The Paradox of Appetite, representatives from decidedly non-healthful food corporations had a presence, in the form of their public relations professionals. I appreciated their attendance.

So often we in the good food movement speak only to each other in our own language and shorthand, and not to the wider world that moves on with or without us. That includes the biggest corporations that feed millions of Americans every day.

I sense that the JBF get this; it is hosting an entire session on the importance of listening when advocating for change. In its conference topics, the Foundation challenges those of us who devote our lives and passions to good food to defend our thesis against our toughest critics. We shouldn’t be afraid to do it—our side is better, more delicious, and healthier.

Certainly food is no cure-all, and the conference will “explore the myriad ways in which food supports personal and public health [and] fails to deliver on their promise of better health.” We in the food movement don’t have all the answers and examining the limitations of our work helps place brackets around how we can change the world.

Last year at the end of the conference someone stood up and bluntly stated, we will never be able to fully understand and control appetite because we simply can’t rationalize it. Appetite is a complex human trait, not a scientific equation waiting to be solved. I’m looking forward to another of those epiphany moments in October.

One of the most crowded sessions will surely be a conversation on “Food and Health: Opportunities and Limitations” with revered New York Times writer Mark Bittman. Currently the agenda doesn’t identify his conversation partner, but I think most audience members would be fine with dialogue just between the voices in Bittman’s head.

Bittman will also receive one of five JBF Leadership Awards, recognizing visionaries who create a better food world, at a dinner on October 27 in conjunction with the conference. At last year’s dinner, Seattle Chef Maria Hines created a clever and inspiring Dinner in Three Acts: three courses inspired by three bills proposed in Congress that she believed would improve the food system. A GMO labeling bill inspired applewood smoked sockeye salmon and the Save America’s Pollinator Act transformed into a plate of fromage blanc cheesecake with pollen, honeycomb, and creamed honey. As Hines said when I interviewed her back in October: “There’s so much potential for chefs to become involved in food policy, and there’s more to do than just chatting up a restaurant guest who is curious about ingredients.”

Photos of snacks at the James Beard Award conference.

Conference snacks on display at the James Beard Foundation conference in 2013. Photographs by Mary Beth Albright

No pressure on Chef Seamus Mullen, who will prepare this year’s dinner. In honor of this year’s health theme, he will collaborate with Dr. Timothy Harlan, Executive Director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine.

Just as an aside: If you didn’t care about food when you arrived at a JBF conference, you will when you leave. It’s the best conference food ever, especially the break time snacks of tiny baby squash and carrot crudités with herbed yogurt dips. Perfect over which to debate, say, the merit of good food.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.