Panel discussion explores what it means to 'eat well'

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) hosted a panel discussion in UW-Madison’s Music Hall on Wednesday, February 12 to reflect on the true meaning of eating well.  Five panelists, including Odessa Piper, founder of L’Etoile, offered their thoughts. 

The other four panelists were Jim Munsch of Deer Run Farm in Coon Valley, Wis., UW Professor and Director of the Global Health Institute Jonathan Patz, Tony Schultz of Stoney Acres Farm in Athens, Wis., and Assistant Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology Monica White.  

Here’s what each had to say:

Odessa Piper

Thirty-eight years after she founded L’Etoile in Madison, Piper lives in Boston where she cooks and writes about food.  In 2013 Piper published a cookbook entitled The Market Kitchen, which is a guide to cooking with farmers market produce.  

Piper’s presentation focused on viewing food as a narrative that can act as a guide for improving the future of our food landscape.

“We continue to make connections between the health of the land and the health of the people,” Piper said, “I’m a proud food citizen and my job is to connect what I know with where I am.”

Our ability to make connections can help people understand technology and industrial agriculture in order to create a more sustainable system, according to Piper.

Jim Munsch

Farmer Jim Munsch was second to speak during the panel discussion.  According to Munsch, each person will have a different answer to the question based on four factors: where they were raised, the social effect of food, science and economics.

Where people were raised effects their historical relationship with food and their perception of food.  Munsch used the example that children in Japan are raised to eat different food than children in the United States.  This means that each person is effected by the traditions and norms of the place they grew up, so each person forms a different relationship with food.

“What does food mean from a social standpoint?” Said Munsch.  To explain this factor Munsch drew from personal experiences.  Growing up, everything his family ate came from two acres of vegetables and 280 acres of diverse species farming.  If they did not eat something directly from the ground, it would be canned.  Meals were always eaten with his family or extended family.  

“So that formed how I looked at food,” said Munsch.

Science is another factor that effects how people determine what eating well means.  Food did not always have a relationship with science, according to Munsch.  Now research focuses on nutrition and other concerns.  Also, science effects what people perceive as good and bad based on the current research.  “Coffee is good, and then it’s not good, and then it’s good,” said Munsch.  

The final factor is economics.  “Cost is the big driver of what [people] buy and eat,” according to Munsch.  He referenced a study at Kansas State that revealed people value the cost of food over nutrition.

Monica White

“If you can feed yourself, you can free yourself,” said Monica White.  The majority of White’s presentation revolved around research she has done in Detroit.  In that work, she found a lack of food access, “especially if you are black, brown, poor, uneducated, lacking transportation, or unemployed,” she said.

Her solution is for communities to take back food production.

In order to eat well we need community gardens and community dinners, which allow people to “cook, eat, talk,” according to White.  We also need more educational programs like gardens in schools where students accept an active role in maintaing the garden.  Eating well is community farmers markets, community owned healthy food stores, and community kitchens.

According to White, increasing community access to food and related programs will help people form healthy relationships with food and the community.

“Food is one point of entry for controlling our lives,” said White.

Tony Schultz

The audience laughed after farmer Tony Schultz opened his presentation with, “To eat well is to eat food high in dietary fiber and low in saturated fats, thank you.”

Similar to Munsch, Schultz addressed several points to answer the proposed question: cook, eat seasonally, eat like a flexitarian, do not eat anonymously, and eat in a world where everyone can eat well.

Schultz’s first step to eating well, to simply cook, was inspired by Michael Pollan, a food writer and author of several books. 

“If people start to cook it’s going to have a real effect on the production side of agriculture … people will ask more questions about food,” said Schultz.  He believes cooking encourages people to better understand their food.

Number two is eat seasonally.  This can be accomplished by participating in a CSA program or shopping at farmers markets.  Seasonal food is at the peak of its nutritional value and flavor, fresher, may be more likely to be locally produced, and it makes eating a celebration, according to Schultz.

Eating well also means eating like a flexitarian, according to Schultz.  This diet is comprised of mainly vegetables and some meat.  “I call myself a social carnivore,” said Schultz.  Animals play an important role in an integrated agriculture system.  For Schultz, his beef cows, pigs and chickens protect against harmful weeds and fertilize the soil.  The beef cows also use his land in one of the most sustainably possible ways, according to Schultz.

Do not eat anonymously, said Schultz, which means to “know your farmer”.  It is important to understand the lives of the people who are producing the food we consume, according to Schultz.

Lastly, we need “to eat in a world where everyone can eat well,” said Schultz.  Organic and local food is progressive, but everyone needs to have access to it.  “It has to be the norm,” he said.  

Jonathan Patz

“It depends if you’re in Wisconsin, if you’re in a region of Ethiopia, or if you're in the next generation anywhere in the world,” said Professor Jonathan Patz.

Patz said that eating well means being a good food citizen.  This means eating responsibly without destroying resources for future generations.  One step to ensure we are being good food citizens is to know where our food comes from, and to do “a full life cycle assessment on the food that is eaten,” said Patz.

Eating well means “eating healthy, local, organic food, grown with power generated in a low carbon economy, in a world with a more sustainable climate and shared equally across all populations of the world,” said Patz.

This is one event in the CIAS 25th anniversary seminar series.  For future events see the CIAS website.