Helene York is an advocate for sustainable food who directed the purchasing initiatives for the Bon Appétit Management Company. As such she is very familiar with supply chain dynamics and macro-level logistics, which were the focus of her presentation “Beyond Consumer Activism: What Companies Must Do to Fix a Broken Food System.”
In her talk she stressed the hope for a more complex perception on food systems, because she believes moving towards sustainability cannot be done without acknowledging the great complexity. “I want to complicate your view,” she began, challenging her audience to consider a new framework for activism.
York began by explaining the enormous complexity of our food system, and the operational procedures and challenges of producing, distributing, preparing, and stocking food. “Food activists almost always miss and dismiss these complexities,” she lamented. “Challenging and untying one thing can unravel progress and accomplishments elsewhere.”
On this note, she emphasized the need to question our vision for change. Citing highly visible works such as 2004’s Fast Food Nation, York noted that not much in the habits of the American consumer has changed since then. Activism, however, had made huge leaps, with increasing numbers of organized movements on college campuses especially.
“Defining what people regard as sustainable is a major challenge,” York argued, citing how in some quarters, meat cannot be part of the diet, while others see bottled water as “a major evil.” She also highlighted the battle over what criteria are used to assess the sustainability of food: some limit it to the taste of food as it reaches the table, while others insist on introducing animal welfare.
She emphasized what some may take to be obvious: “We cannot have sustainable food without a sustainable food system.” Unfortunately, York tells us, many are losing sight of the bigger picture. She noted the incredibly harsh indicators that the American food system is broken, including statistics that one out of six people go to bed hungry each night, even as more than one third of U.S. adults are obese. To her, this is both a systemic and poverty-related issue, where the amount of food wasted from even the production stage is between thirty and forty percent.
To York, one particularly urgent area that needs fixing is the irresponsible use of antibiotics. She was careful not to conflate this with an antibiotic-free supply chain, urging for the proper administration of drugs to actually treat diseases. When antibiotics force livestock to grow faster, it justifies the denser storage of animals in battery farms and cages. The rampant use of antibiotics also impacts children who are no longer finding these drugs effective when they fall ill, given the prevalent exposure to such chemicals in their diet. In order to progress towards a sustainable food system, York strongly advocated for improvements on this front.
She highlighted the importance of attitude changes, including the desire for purity in animal welfare. For her, this rigid view “creates a two-tier system and shuts the door on widespread change; if you’re upset with a lack of perfection, just don’t eat it.”
In encouraging a macro-level analysis, York also advocated for openness to alternatives, highlighting how organic produce “is very nice, but not the only or most optimal way to achieve the goal of agricultural biodiversity.” This idea tied into her push for changing the way Americans consumed food: “Eaters must be weaned off foods that stress out natural resources.”
In conclusion she gestured at corporations and the decision-makers who define the system, advocating what she called “an ethical-investment approach” that involved informed customer choices on what products to purchase. For her the resolve of the consumer was essential to beginning the long-overdue process of fixing the broken food system, before a sustainable one can even be considered.
“My sincerest hope is that my comments today, in the spirit of this wonderful tradition at Carleton, have given you true food for thought.”