Mon May 5, 2014
WSW: Food's Impact on Health, Environment and the Economy
Food sustainability expert Arlin Wasserman says it's a good time to work in the food industry.
Wasserman is a founder of Changing Tastes, which consults corporations, government agencies and foundations. He was in Kalamazoo on May 1st to deliver the keynote address to the Kalamazoo Valley Community College Foundation's Education for Opportunities Dinner. Before his address, Wasserman sat down with WMUK's Gordon Evans in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel.
He says the food sector has continued to create jobs in the United States, even during the economic downtown which began in 2007. Wasserman says it's a field that people can get into without a lot of education or experience. But he says the next step is better training to address food's impact on health and the environment.
When asked about trusting corporations to handle our food supply, Wasserman says the reality is we already do. The former Vice President for sustainability at Sodexo says the percentage of prepared meals is on the rise. Wasserman says that includes eating at restaurants and ready to eat meals at supermarkets and other places that sell food. But he says the fastest growing companies are new ones that use high quality ingredients and offer healthier options.
Wasserman says regulation and "the soft power of government" is critical to food. He says there has been an increase in the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables at all income levels. Wasserman says he believes that is due at least in part to First Lady Michelle Obama's public education efforts. But he says the government could do more through its purchasing of food and food service for the military and government agencies. Wasserman says new requirements for those purchases would have ripple effects throughout the food supply.
It's not practical for people to do their own research every time they eat, says Wasserman. So he says, people have to do business with companies that are transparent about their ingredients and origins. Wassmern says that's a common practice among smaller, faster growing companies. He says the public is spending more on food, but is demanding to know more.
When asked about the rate of change in the food industry, Wasserman says "big food companies realize the need to change, they just don't know how to do it, and they're afraid to do it." He says problems related to food, like climate change, water scarcity and obesity may get worse. But Wasserman says top executives may conclude that they can retire before it reaches a critical point on their watch. He says the smarter large corporations are also buying smaller companies. That's allowing them to diversify their product line, and take advantage of changes in the way people eat. Wasserman says acquiring those smaller competitors allows larger companies to bring in younger, smart executives.
Wasserman says change is now happening quicker in the food industry. But he says there's been a cost to health and the environment for the slow pace of change for so long. Wassmerman says there will always be part of the food industry, which opposes regulation and change. But he says movement is currently in the right direction.