Gateways to Health

Connections in Food: Stanford Hosts Fifth Food Summit

By / Photography By Chris Chowaniec | January 15, 2015
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stanford food summit
A healthy lunch served at the Summit

Having been a primary incubator of the technology boom in Silicon Valley, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Stanford University is taking a leading role in the sustainable food revolution.

And while much of Stanford’s work is supporting world-class research, the university also directs an innovative and influential food service program that feeds and educates students on sustainable eating.

After all, “Stanford dining serves over 12,000 meals a day, and Stanford graduates will eat over 200 million meals in their lifetimes,” says Eric Montell, executive director of Stanford Dining.

So it’s fitting that the 2014 Stanford Food Summit had the theme of “Connections in Food.” Stanford academics are leading the way in researching sustainable, healthy diets and Stanford Dining works to bring the results of that research directly to the table.

The benefits are clear: Stanford students eat well while research gets real-world application and exposure.

Created in 2010 by Christopher Gardner, a PhD in nutrition science and professor of medicine at Stanford’s School of Medicine, the Stanford Food Summit highlights research and innovation from within Stanford and brings in external experts from agriculture, food service, marketing and nutrition science.

christopher gardner
Adam Busby
Photo 1: Christopher Gardner, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University.
Photo 2: Adam Busby from the CIA preparing Buckwheat Noodle Salad with Grilled Thai Chicken.

When asked the reason for starting the Stanford Food Summit, Gardner responded that in 2010 he was discussing with a group of colleagues “how frustrating it was to make impactful and positive changes on the eating behaviors of Americans from within the constraints of our individual disciplines, and how we might be able to turn that around by taking a more systems-level approach benefiting from the expertise and passion of colleagues from across the University’s seven schools—Medicine, Humanities & Sciences, Earth Sciences, Business, Law, Engineering and Education.”

After that initial idea, Gardner and his colleagues obtained funding and arranged for a day of talks from speakers representing all seven schools. “We were exceedingly pleased (stunned, really) when 300+ scholars, community food advocates and others showed up to listen and participate,” says Gardner. Ever since then they have continued to build a learning community to engage colleagues in “a campus-wide initiative aimed at shaping the national conversation about food production, distribution and consumption, and fixing our currently broken food system.”

The 2014 Stanford Food Summit was held in October and included a day program with speakers, panels, research presentations, cooking demos and an evening film screening featuring the documentary film Occupy the Farm (see ESV Fall 2014).

A highlight of the day program, “Protein: Fads, Myths and Facts” focused on the role of protein in our diet and the environmental impact of different sources of protein. Gardner highlighted research that showed potential limitations of measuring the recommended daily allowance of proteins, and that most Americans get more than enough daily protein, even with a vegan diet.

Meanwhile, Arlin Wasserman founder of sustainable food consultancy Changing Tastes, focused on the relative costs of different proteins. While Wasserman did not judge the relative merits of different sources of protein, his presentation made it clear that many animal proteins carry more monetary and environmental costs, and that this data could be used to inform decisions by policymakers and food service professionals.

Later sessions focused on the application of Stanford research and innovative real world programs. There were presentations from Stanford Students in the new FEED Collaborative, a “program in design thinking and food system innovation and impact.” FEED stands for “food, entrepreneurship, education and design.” Students design programs to “protect local farms, enhance their economic viability, build relationships and increase awareness of local food,” says FEED Collaborative’s co-founder Debra Dunn.

The goal is to have students “pursue the means to make a mission in the food space, and how to put that plan into action … then dive in and make a difference after graduation,” says Dunn. FEED Collaborative students and fellows led presentations on their programs, including work at the Full Circle Farm Camp to teach children about farming and cooking; creating and maintaining school gardens in Palo Alto; and assessing the impact of Stanford’s Dining Ambassadors program.

Looking to the future, Stanford also plans to leverage its food service programs to encourage sustainable food and cooking across the country. Working with Greg Drescher, vice president of Strategic Initiatives & Industry Leadership at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), they are developing the University Dining Research Collaborative. Starting off at CIA with 18–20 universities across the nation, the collaborative will allow food service programs to share best practices for healthy and sustainable dining.

As Eric Montell of Stanford Dining notes, “We don’t compete with the other universities, so we can share data on best practices.” And as Drescher says, the collaborative “can better connect the food service and culinary world with the academic world … we can act as an accelerator.”

Afternoon panels, highlighted by dozens of industry experts, focused on other areas of interest including the boom in coffee, chocolate and fermented beverages like wine, beer and kombucha along with more detailed discussion of proteins, sustainable fish and behavior design. Entire food systems were often represented, with a cacao grower sitting next to a chocolatier and a chocolate taster, backed up by a Stanford nutritionist discussing the most current research on the health benefits of chocolate.

The cooking demos tied it all together with live, and very tasty, examples of how to cook and create flavor using more sustainable ingredients. Highlighting the concept of “shifting proteins on the plate” Chef Adam Busby of CIA prepared a Buckwheat Noodle Salad with Grilled Thai Chicken and Chef Chandon Clenard of Stanford Dining a Sprouted Lentil and Quinoa Burger (see recipe linked). We were fortunate to then dine on those delicious dishes for lunch.

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