This morning, an employee inside of Kellogg’s reached out, as did a chemical engineer who used to work at DuPont and a farmer and dad of three who recently lost his wife to cancer.
This issue of food safety touches all of us. It doesn’t matter where we work or what side of the aisle that we are on. Americans want access to clean and safe food. They want it to be affordable and they want as much information as possible about how it is made and where it comes from.
However, our government is moving in the opposition direction of providing that information. Legislators recently voted against GMO labeling and against country of origin labeling. It’s ironic, because we spend more on health care and disease management than any other country on the planet. Eighteen cents of every dollar. Wouldn’t you think we’d want to know more about the food we are eating not less?
Our country and our economy are only as healthy as its citizens, and cancer, autism, food allergies and diabetes don’t care if we are a Republican or a Democrat, a libertarian or an independent. These condition and diseases don’t follow party lines, they are impacting families everywhere. It can be a lot to manage.
And out of nowhere, inspiration came from Ohio this week.
When I was first asked to speak in Cleveland, it was shortly after my first TEDx talk back in 2011. The CEO of Nestle’s frozen food division called.
That invitation changed everything. The team was large but private. The CEO had invited me and others in to address the changes that were happening in the food industry. The group also included the head of marketing from McDonald’s. It was for a working session with his team.
“You can say things that I can’t say.” He said. He was a father of three and was watching the company’s sales tank. “I don’t want this headquarter building to go from five floors to four to three to two to one….” He said.
He meant every word of it.
The first evening, we gathered in their beautiful gourmet kitchen, surrounded by chefs who ushered us through making exquisite versions of their pizzas and hot pockets. It was a bit surreal. The marketing head of McDonald’s spoke about how when they launched their first smoothie, they took out something like a quarter of the world’s blueberry supply.
The CEO sat next to me, and we spoke through the entire event. At the end, I turned to him quietly and said, “You get this, you know what you need to do, what are you afraid of?’
Without hesitating, his answer was clear: “My board of directors.”
I never forgot that.
So when I was invited back to Cleveland to speak this week, all of those memories came flooding back. In no small part because we were just down the street from those initial Nestle meetings. We were next to the West Side Market in Ohio’s most popular restaurant only this time in a hugely popular restaurant called Town Hall.
I’ve done a lot of events in the last ten years, met many brilliant business people with the moral courage of heros.
But nothing could have prepared me for what I would see in Cleveland.
The city is experiencing a resurgence, its architecture is beautiful, classic American, the kind our grandfathers would have been proud of. The city was in the middle of preparing for the Republican National Convention which it is hosting in 2016.
I thought back to when my hometown of Houston hosted the same. Bush, Sr. was running for reelection. We all piled into cars to attend, college kids, and climbed the stands of the stadium to hear his keynote.
My first morning there, I was scheduled for a radio interview. She was sharp and directed the questions towards politics and capitalism. Why does food policy tend to divide on party lines? They were great, very important questions, and I realized that the ears were conservative ones, just like my own family back in Texas. Cancer doesn’t care if we are Republican or Democrat, though, neither does diabetes, autism or life threatening food allergies.
And I thought about how much had changed in the 15 years that I’d lived in Colorado. How many Democrats and Republicans had reached out, how much honesty I’d seen. One being that I don’t think we’d choose the political system that we have inherited. It didn’t really seem to fit younger generations. Would we choose a two party system? Would we still define them this way?
I could feel all of it in Cleveland, the tradition and the movement towards the trajectory towards something new.
And as the day went on, more interviews were scheduled and meetings continued. The owner of the restaurant, hosting the evening’s event which was scheduled with Congressman Tim Ryan, was a man named Bobby.
He is 34.
His restaurant, Town Hall, is the most successful restaurant in Ohio and had made a commitment to being free from GMOs. That’s huge by any measure. He’d brought in a brilliant consultant who’d only recently graduated from Cornell, Alex. Alex’s brain was fierce, and I loved him for his honesty and knowledge. He was 27. The team spoke about the distribution challenges, the economies of scale needed for them to get what they needed at a cost that enabled them to continue to grow. They spoke about their challenges and the surprises they’d seen.
And I found myself wishing for an IPO for this amazing business model so that it could spread around the country.
The menu was delicious and fun, the side benefit was that it was free from the junk. No one in there seemed to be focused on that, though, they were there for the atmosphere, the energy of the place and the incredible food.
What struck me was that it was all ages. Guys in their 70s that you’d expect to see on the golf course on a Tuesday afternoon were on the patio, sitting at tables eating organic food.
The place was overflowing with millennials and kids fresh out of high school and college. It was huge and full, and it was so inspiring.
And I thought back to earlier in the morning when I’d been doing the first interview, a boat had sailed by. On the side, it said, “American Courage.”
And here in the heartland of Ohio, you could feel it. You could feel it in the passion of this incredible team: the woman doing the PR, in the servers, in the chefs, in the guys who handpicked the drinks, and you could feel in the heart and mind of that business owner.
It was contagious, and that courage, love and passion was in every part of that menu.
As the evening wore down, I found myself wishing that I could put a TownHall in every city in America: Denver, Birmingham, Austin, Atlanta.
The food was incredible, but the vision was, too: the hope for a better way, a healthy America, full of heart, love, intellect and pioneering passion, the founding principals of our country so that we could pursue life, liberty and happiness.
None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something, as we focus on progress not perfection.
It’s up to us. Our founding fathers did it. It’s our turn to do it, too.
And on the flight home, Dave Matthews’ song, Mercy, ran through my head….
Don’t give up
I know you can see
All the world and the mess that we’re making.
Can’t give up and hope God will intercede
Come on back, imagine that we could get it together.
Stand up for what we need to be
Cause crying won’t save or feed a hungry child
Can’t lay down and wait for a miracle to change things
Lift up your eyes, lift up your heart.
Mercy will we overcome this?
One by one could we turn it around?
One by one, we can turn it around. We already are.
So what can we do as individuals, as families, as Americans? Here are 9 ideas.
- Start a book club
- Start a movie night
- Host a speaker at your children’s school
- Host a speaker at your church
- Invite a local restauranteur in to teach families about cooking
- Reach out to your local legislator (they have kids, too)
- If you know how to cook, offer to teach others.
- Plant something, a lima bean in a cup, a tomato plant, a garden.
- Write to brands and ask them for more free-from products (free from GMOs, chemicals and dyes).
Do one thing, so that together, we can build this new food economy and a food system for 21st century families.