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The James Beard Foundation’s Non-Activist Conference

james-beard-conference

The queerest thing about last week’s James Beard Foundation conference in Manhattan was the ginormous photograph of a brown-black human turd, pictured underneath a similar-looking red sausage. The photo was displayed on a huge screen by public-policy academic Raj Patel, who announced to the assembled corporate honchos, entrepreneurs, and bland food-nonprofit wonks, “I’ve come to be the turd in the punch bowl!”

The James Beard Foundation is the most prestigious organization for American chefs and gourmands, and every year since 2010 it’s been holding an “educational” conference about food activism — a really, really tame one, if this year’s confab was any indication. The turd Patel had come to deliver was the message that the sustainable food movement must be grounded in, er, politics — and not just any politics, but a progressive “politics of justice and equality.” Otherwise, the handsome Patel said in his lovely Brit accent, food activism can be used just as easily by the fascist right — as in Italy, where haters of Muslims have passed laws banning kebabs, and in India, where the Hindu right has beaten to death Muslims accused of eating beef.

Unfortunately, the message most conference-goers seemed to take away from the author’s exciting but rambling speech was simply not to be Islamophobes, which the chefs, food-service companies like Aramark, Dunkin’ Donuts brass, and school-garden advocates in attendance seemed to feel they could sign on to fine. The larger message of Patel’s excellent food writing — that systemic economic inequality is the biggest barrier to food justice, not poor people’s confounding failure to educate themselves about kale – was lost at a conference who stated goal was “to explore the genesis and lifecycle of trends and apply that knowledge to food system issues. We’ll draw on the experience of other trend-focused industries, such as technology, fashion, and design, to understand why some trends last and others fizzle.”

The conference was entitled “Now Trending: the Making of a Food Movement,” and the people in the room were almost exclusively white people with very well-paying jobs.

At one discussion at my table, I heard white attendees earnestly debating how to get “people from the inner city” aware they should eat vegetables, as though people of color had no awareness of good health practices. When we finally discussed the need to increase free school meals for hungry children, a man at my table dubiously asked if there was any “empirical data” that they improved test scores.

A few tips for the James Beard folks for organizing future activist conferences: 1) Don’t have a dress code. (“Business casual attire.”) Most of the people you want to get in the room will be wearing jeans and T-shirts or low-end dresses. They will be most comfortable (and most ready to fight the system) if they’re not forced to dress as if for a job interview. 2) Don’t charge your attendees $500 to attend ($600 if they’re unable to pay by the “early bird” date). 3) Have nitty-gritty sessions on how to lobby, how to organize other human beings, how to organize mass demonstrations. Don’t waste chefs’ and advocates’ time with hours devoted to “hot brands” like Gordon Ramsay and “the Internet of things” and wondering how we can make the movement for food justice just as um, “exciting” and sellable. 4) Learn the difference between a market and a movement. Continue reading