In Episode 49, Quinn & Brian ask: What can the HUGE food and beverage companies do, right now, to improve U.S. food systems and drive trends towards a more sustainable future?
It’s a big and complicated question, but our guest Jennifer Mleczko is going to share the one simple thing you can do to address all of it at once. Jennifer is a consultant at the World Bank focused on sustainable development, specifically agriculture and, even more specifically, livestock. There are environmental, social, economic, and political implications to the food systems we’ve created here in the United States; globalization, international trade, market consolidation, and the ways we produce food affects communities all around the globe. We aren’t always aware of how buying a package of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets from Walmart affects a small farm halfway across the country or the world, but every choice we make has consequences – and the more we work to bring awareness to these choices, the more we can do to transition to a more sustainable food system.
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Trump’s Book Club: The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry Links: Jennifer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/jennifermleczko Jennifer on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jennifermleczko/ Find Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) near you: https://www.localharvest.org/csa/ Find a Farmers’ Market near you: https://www.localharvest.org/farmers-markets/ Download the Seasonal Food Guide app: https://www.seasonalfoodguide.org/download-app Connect with us: Subscribe to our newsletter at ImportantNotImportant.com! Intro/outro by Tim Blane: timblane.com Follow Quinn: twitter.com/quinnemmett Follow Brian: twitter.com/briancolbertken Like and share us on Facebook: facebook.com/ImportantNotImportant Check us on Instagram: instagram.com/ImportantNotImportant Follow us on Twitter: twitter.com/ImportantNotImp Pin us on Pinterest: pinterest.com/ImportantNotImportant Tumble us or whatever the hell you do on Tumblr: importantnotimportant.tumblr.com Important, Not Important is produced by Podcast Masters
Quinn: Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett.
Brian: And I'm Brian Colbert Kennedy.
Quinn: And today's question is a mouthful. What can the gigantic, huge, you wouldn't believe it food and beverage companies in America do right now to improve US food systems and drive trends towards a more sustainable future?
Brian: You're being weird today.
Quinn: That's an understatement. Rolling on no sleep. No sleep. Yeah, it's a loaded one, it's a complicated one, but we're going to find out why, but also, this feels like click bait, the one simple thing you can do to address all of it at once. Because it's a lot.
Brian: Yeah, that's true.
Quinn: Our guest today, the esteemed Jennifer Mleczko. She is a consultant at the World Bank focused on sustainable development, specifically agriculture, specifically livestock. She corrected me 12 times, which is great, perfect, as the world as it should be.
Brian: She's very smart and she knows everything.
Quinn: She knows everything. She's like, "I specifically do this," and then I asked a bunch of questions. She's like ... 20 minute answer. I mean, oh, God. If I could do that on one thing, I'd retire.
Brian: You could.
Quinn: What's the one thing?
Brian: How we're all going to burn.
Quinn: Well ... Nobody wants to hear that.
Brian: I know.
Quinn: Anyway, she has set up shop in the past in the Office of Energy and Environmental Industries, the International Trade Administration, the National Soybean Research Center. Does Habitat for Humanity, and also, a couple other surprising places where she nor we could have figured out how she got there. But hey, everybody's got one of those in their past.
Brian: Yeah. This was very cool. This is a conversation I'm very happy to have everybody listen to, because it's hugely important and gets, I think, buried under other very important issues, but needs everybody's attention so that we can make some changes.
Quinn: Yeah, we try to talk about things, again, that's affecting everybody right now or in the next 10 years, and everybody has to eat food.
Brian: We all got to eat.
Quinn: We just need to eat different food. So, yeah, excited. Let's go talk to Jennifer.
Brian: Me too, let's get into it.
Quinn: All right. Our guest today is Jennifer Mleczko, and today we're asking, what the gigantic food and beverage companies, of which we're going to illustrate for you, because it's crazy, do right now to improve US food systems and drive trends toward a more sustainable future? That's a lot. Jennifer, welcome.
Jen Mleczko: Hi. Happy to be here chatting with you guys.
Brian: We are very happy to have you.
Quinn: Yes, for sure.
Brian: For sure. So, yeah, a great way to start is to just let us all know who you are and what you do.
Jen Mleczko: All right. I guess a bit of background. Okay, from the beginning, have you ever heard of meat judging?
Quinn: Nope, let's do it.
Jen Mleczko: It's this really unique thing that is in a lot of land grant universities and big agricultural universities, and it's basically meat science. You judge pork, lamb, and beef on muscling, trimness, and quality. I got into it because I was originally planning to go to vet school, and it gave me a lot of insight on meat processing facilities and slaughterhouses that a lot of people don't actually get to see. While I did meet a lot of great people who really care about their animals and really working hard to feed the world. It was a view of the inside look of the industrialized food system, and I don't know. For me, it just seemed really unnatural, just like anyone who, I think, would enter a slaughterhouse would think.
Jen Mleczko: "Ugh," yeah. It's kind of crazy. I started thinking, then, what would a food system that is sustainable for animals, workers, environment, and also feed the world might look like? Then I bounced around topics between crop sciences, animal sciences, political science, but ultimately did get my degree in environmental science. Then it wasn't until my master's program, I actually did a dual master's, that I really started to see the social implications of food systems, the influence of globalization, international trade, market consolidation, and the way we produce our food, but I worked during my master's in the International Trade Administration's Energy and Environmental Technology's office. It's a long title. At the Department of Commerce, and then also did some work with an urban farming startup in Chicago, which was really cool, and then-
Jen Mleczko: ... Spent a year in Costa Rice. I kind of got views of food systems from a variety of perspectives before landing my current job. Currently, working as a consultant at the World Bank. I'm taking the role of research analyst on global trends, particularly as it pertains to the sustainability of the livestock sector, which, I'm sure you're aware, is the most resource-intensive sector in agriculture. But it was kind of a perfect fit. I get to take my experience from all these variety of sectors and really apply it, connecting the dots, helping see emerging trends. Also, I felt like it came full circle. I left the animal sciences for a focus on the environment, and now I do livestock and environment work.
Brian: So, like most of our guests, you're a bum.
Quinn: I think she's Captain Planet. I think she's Captain Planet.
Brian: She's amazing.
Quinn: She literally brought together earth and wind and fire and water and she's like, "And now I'm in charge of cows, I think." That's amazing, and it turns out, cows are killing us all.
Quinn: Awesome. That is super. I just want to deviate real quick, because you mentioned offline before we got started that you are a first-generation American. Welcome to the hellscape that is us. Sorry. It seems like you barreled straight into food stuff. Is there some sort of food history with your family or, I guess, I'm just curious how you pointed yourself towards it and if there's any backstory there or anything like that?
Jen Mleczko: Yeah. I guess I always grew up with a pretty close relationship with food. My parents came from pretty ... I mean, my dad came from the city in Poland and my mom in rural areas, but both grew up farming chickens and cows and subsistence farming, really, for their own, and then obviously selling some of it, but they really came from those areas, so when they moved to the US and then moved to the suburbs, they really wanted to own a small plot of land, have some produce growing and then ... I know occasionally growing up, my dad would go and order half a pig and butcher it in our garage. We had a smokehouse out back. This is very suburbia Illinois, so we were those neighbors.
Jen Mleczko: Then I quickly realized growing up that most of my friends, people at college, they didn't have the same relationship that I have to food. With this whole meat science thing that I kind of jumped into right away in college, it was really backwards to me, coming from this background and relationship to food to really firsthand seeing this industrialized mega-food system. It just really put me on a path of, okay, there has to be a balance and there has to be a better way to go about these things.
Quinn: Yes, there is quite a background.
Brian: Yeah, definitely.
Quinn: That makes sense. That makes sense. Awesome.
Brian: Holy cow.
Quinn: That's ... Holy cow. Nice.
Brian: See what I did?
Jen Mleczko: Holy cow.
Quinn: Well done.
Brian: I'm here all day.
Quinn: We'll see how it goes. Go ahead, Brian.
Brian: Okay, so that's amazing. You do a lot. We'll get our conversation going and, like Quinn said, we're here to sort of figure out what we can do to assist what you're doing to fix this problem and find out what these food and bev companies can do. So, we'll ask you some questions, questions that require answers that are actionable so that we can get our listeners to actually do something, if that sounds cool.
Quinn: Awesome. Jennifer, we do start with one important question, and that is, instead of saying "tell us your life story," which I literally just did, we'd like to ask, Jennifer, why are you vital to the survival of the species?
Jen Mleczko: Wow, okay. That's a heavy question.
Quinn: How's your adrenaline now?
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, right? Really pumping. So, I would say that everyone is vital to our human species. I think the minute that we start to think we're un-vital or we're just this autonomous being moving through society, I think that's where things really go bad. I think if each of us thought about, okay, I am essential to creating change, I think each of us are vital. I think when we need to start telling people, every action that you do really impacts things.
Quinn: Awesome. I think that's a very selfless answer, but at the same time, a good, instructive one, or, as we like to say, just give a shit, people.
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, pretty much.
Quinn: It makes a big difference. Awesome, so, let's throw together a little context of everybody here, and Jennifer, please jump in, correct us, run away, whatever makes the most sense. Talking about sustainable and specifically, obviously, as you and I mentioned in some emails, that is a complicated term, but in the context of today-
Brian: Sustainable food?
Quinn: Yeah. What can ... Are you mocking me, Brian? What was that face?
Brian: No, I was just clarifying for myself and for the listener.
Quinn: Okay. In the context of today's question, which is, what can the big food and beverage companies do to push us much more quickly towards that, so, listeners may or may not know this or maybe that have some idea, but basically, there's about seven companies that own almost all the food you eat unless you're buying strictly local produce or growing it yourself. And, of course, a lot of our listeners are doing some of that, but if it's even remotely packaged, then that is by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Kellogg's, Mars, Nestlé, and Kraft. We will put the image of everything that they own-
Brian: An umbrella [crosstalk 00:11:03].
Quinn: ... In our show notes and Brian will throw it up on social media, and if you haven't seen it, you should. It's pretty wild. Not necessarily a bad thing but also a very complicated issue. So, in light of that, they are pretty much in control of the food system, which is why we need to talk about it more. There is a huge variety of issues with our human food chain, which is mostly controlled by these companies and also a couple private ones, but it's the huge companies that grow the food, whether it's corn or soy that go into most of these products. Some of those issues are industrial farming, which is a conversation to itself, added sugar, monocrops, plastics, etc., etc.
Quinn: What I want to know is, again, we're going to dig into, what can these huge companies that own everything you see in the grocery store do right now and soon, because we are in a little bit of a hustle, to improve, let's talk specifically about US food systems and drive some of these trends towards a more sustainable future. What does sustainable mean in this case? I guess there's a variety of places we can go, of course, it's complicated, but let's start with livestock, because I do believe that's your forte. Again, there's a waterfall of issues from industrial farming and livestock, from emissions to antibiotics to fertilizer in the water, but let's come back to the question, which is, what can those seven companies do right now to improve the US livestock chain and drive us towards a more sustainable future?
Jen Mleczko: Livestock in itself is a really complicated issue and, I mean, I think the complicated part with sustainability and livestock is that you can't really look at one thing alone. You can't really look at just emissions or just water pollution or just land use. You kind of have to take it all into account, which, obviously, is hard to do. It's easier to look at those things in isolation. Often, in the US, we do a lot of industrialized farming and especially in livestock and a lot of people will say that those are really low emissions intensity, so you have a lot of low emissions per kilogram product. But, you also have these major pollution issues with industrialized farming systems, like manure management, things like that.
Jen Mleczko: But, in the US, there's also a lot of grazing that happens. For example, the whole western plains since we got rid of all the buffalo that used to manage these systems and were kind of an inherent part to that ecosystem, we got rid of the buffalo, but ruminants and cattle are kind of a good substitute, so they can kind of maintain those ecosystems and also promote sustainability. So, I guess, in terms of promoting sustainability in the livestock sector in the US, I think we need a comprehensive look on connecting the manure back to fertilizer for crops and make these things more cyclical and manage the pollution runoff and then promote the farmers and the ranchers that are doing these sustainable grazing, grass-fed practices. And we have the ecosystem that provides that for us, which is great. So, yeah.
Quinn: Now, to take the other ... Not the other side of it, but sort of one of the other perspectives. Again, I know it's a complicated issue, but do you see a world where these companies can help start us driving for a variety of reasons, but we'll come back to climate, I guess, towards a country that eats a lot less meat?
Jen Mleczko: Big food and ag companies, I mean, we can't, like you've already highlighted, ignore the huge influence that big food has on the sector. While I love local food movements ... I mean, we all do. I think local and small-scale farming is kind of the epitome of what we want to see, but with all these climate change reports coming out recently, we don't have time. I think big food and ag can really drive that kind of change. We're already starting to see it. Some companies are really looking at their supply chain and trying to source their commodities much better and from certified sources and things like that.
Jen Mleczko: But I don't think we've actually really seen addressing the whole consumption issue. I think there is a lot of promise in big ag doing good in terms of production methods, kind of on the supply side, but yeah, I think it's still up in the air as to how big food and beverage companies can influence demand. They would have to want to, is the thing.
Quinn: Right, and it's complicated, again, to say, "Hey, fix this." They could say, "Well, let's see." Meat and cow milk production takes an unholy amount of water, right?
Jen Mleczko: Yeah.
Quinn: It takes a huge amount of land that could be used for other things. Literally cow farts are a massive methane problem just because of how many cows we have out there and methane being 10 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
Jen Mleczko: I actually think it's cow burps.
Quinn: Well, there you go, then.
Brian: Boom. Both, I think.
Quinn: Cow burps. But, you know, again, we can come to them and say, "Oh, okay, so now there's research that says literally feeding cows seaweed can drop the potency of that," but you know? I recognize and hesitate to use the word but I do think you have to a little bit, you have to empathize with these huge, titanic companies that take a long time to turn around and a long time to institute things, that say, "Oh, you've got to feed your cows seaweed." That's a pretty fucking complicated thing to figure out. At the same time, like you said, the news recently hasn't been so great, and agriculture is ... I think agriculture, which is, again, a loaded term, is something like 25% of our emissions? The US's emissions?
Jen Mleczko: Yeah.
Quinn: So we do have to start acting on it, and it seems insane to say we have to start feeding cows seaweed to save the planet, but we do. So, I recognize that it's complicated. So we can throw a thousand things against the wall and say, "They've got to do this," and "They've got to do that," and that would help it, but I do think what I want to do over the course of the episode is definitely specifically in this one drive towards things where we can have the most impact on them. Let's say for this one, for adjusting livestock as far as production and consumption and emissions, what do you feel like are the things that our listeners and people in general can do to have the biggest impact? How much can ... From their voice to how they talk to their friends and everybody to their vote, which is how much can they affect the Farm Bill, to their dollar, which is buying less meat or buying it locally, etc., etc.? What are your thoughts on that front?
Jen Mleczko: I think in terms of ... I think we should all be working to eat less meats. It's extremely resource intensive and in the US, we're eating, I think, well above dietary recommendations. Even eating less meat and coming down to that level would be good. I think for the meat industry especially, it's pretty notorious in the US for being consolidated and all-powerful and not as transparent. I think demanding transparency from these companies, and I think if there's anything that you're buying local, you should try to buy your meat local. Whether it's from a CSA, a community sponsored agriculture project, or something like that, I think that's the most beneficial way.
Jen Mleczko: I also think in terms of, actually, these dietary recommendations, recently in my research I've been digging into how big industry has influenced our dietary recommendations. Actually pretty well documented that big meat and dairy have, for a long time, had a pretty strong hold on these recommendations. There was quite a fight back in 2015 to move the recommendations towards a more plant-based diet, and we couldn't quite get it through here in the US, but it is moving in other countries. I think if we talked to our family and friends, saying, "Okay, you can eat a healthy diet that is less meat." Actually, when this whole debate in 2015 was going on, I forgot what ... the American Association for Health ... I forgot what the organization was that came out with the recommendations to Congress, was based on all science and academic, that we should be eating less meats, more plants, it's good for the planet, it's good for our health.
Jen Mleczko: Maybe the next time these ... Because they're renewed every five years, these recommendations, so maybe the next time they come around, really start those debates. I think, also, a lot of people don't know too much about agricultural policy and how it influences our daily choices. I think even asking your rep, "What kind of agricultural policies do you support?" would be a good start. I think the Farm Bill debates get overshadowed by food stamps and crop subsidies, both of which are important issues, but I think we fail to think about how these policies are affecting our daily choices and then the access that small farmers have to succeed.
Quinn: Sure, sure.
Brian: When you live in a big city, like Los Angeles for example, where do you get local meat? What does that mean?
Jen Mleczko: I'm not sure about Los Angeles. I know in DC-
Brian: Oh yeah, or DC, sure.
Jen Mleczko: Yeah. I know in DC there's, just looking through and trying to ... There are farmers' markets that sell local meat, but I've actually found that it can actually be pretty easy to subscribe to a CSA.
Brian: What is that?
Jen Mleczko: It's community ... I think I got the acronym wrong earlier. It's community supported agriculture. It's farmers that ... From what I understand, often, it's a subscription service, so you guarantee that you will buy this amount from a farmer every month or every week or whatever, they all range, but farmers enter these kind of co-ops, coalitions, to improve market access for themselves and then also for consumers. Often, especially for meats, it could be easier to look into ... It's also hard because states have different regulations on these things, so it's really dependent on your region and what's allowed in terms of farmer access to these kind of resources.
Brian: I've been recently more than ever such an advocate for not eating meat, and obviously, that is met with a fight to most people that you talk to, but it would be so great to say, "Fine, if you're going to do it still, at least do this. Get your meat here instead." Some sort of compromise.
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, exactly.
Quinn: Right, as much as it's a big rush and we need to make radical changes, just starting push the people in your life towards incremental steps will make a difference.
Brian: All right, let's talk about monocrops. First question. What's a monocrop?
Jen Mleczko: A monocrop is one crop that is planted in a field. Usually, these fields are extremely expansive and huge, and monocrops are usually the commodity crops. So, corn, soybean, cotton, these kind of huge staple crops. Typically, pretty bad for the environment. They require a lot of inputs, machinery. Especially for staple crops, monocrops are really the only way to go in terms of succeeding in the US as a farmer.
Quinn: Which is crazy, because, again, these are complicated as well, but these are also things like corn is killing our health as well. This isn't the corn that was grown 400 years ago. It's been bred for taste or to feed those cows that we talked about.
Jen Mleczko: I think it's 80% of US soybean goes to feed production.
Quinn: That's crazy.
Brian: All that land being used just for that.
Quinn: Right. And similarly, monocrops, from what I understand, please correct me where I'm wrong and off base here, does not make the soil very sustainable, and so while it could also be used for more nutritious foods and less expansive, there's a huge, or at least a budding, potentially huge, revolution underway to make our soil, to revert it to the state where it can start sucking more of the carbon back out of the air like it's supposed to. Could you talk a little bit about that, enlighten us a little bit?
Jen Mleczko: Yeah. In terms of monocrops, there are practices that can improve soil fertility, like if you rotate crops. Let's say you plant corn one year and then soy the next year. Soy brings nitrogen back into the soil, and it improves soil fertility. Then farmers can practice no till, which doesn't disturb the soil either, but I think ultimately, it's really hard to get those nutrients that you need back into the soil with monocrops.
Jen Mleczko: If you have diversified farming systems, you have different plants contributing different nutrients to the soil and you can rotate them and you can use cover crops for when you're not planting a field and all those things promotes soil health and the sustainability of soil and maintain yields long-term. Versus monocropping, which I do get why things like wheat and, I guess, corn and soy, since we plant so much of it, needs to be planted in monocrops, but it doesn't have to be so, I think, expansive. It's definitely not good for the health. I understand the bare bones economics reasons for it, but long term, it's just not sustainable.
Quinn: Do we see any of these companies moving towards ... They're not going to stop planting corn and wheat and soy any time soon, but at the same time, moving towards more sustainable practices to at least, again, this is the lifestyle thing, at least start addressing the soil health in some way or anything like that. And then we can move to, okay, so then what are the things we need to do to start pushing them in that direction?
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, I think there are some good examples. I know Walmart, for example, they invested ... They made some waves in investing in sustainable agricultural systems and sourcing things from small farmers, but I think ... There is some movement. I think recently, actually, last year, there were four huge companies, Nestlé, Mars, Danone, and Unilever, that created the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, which-
Quinn: Is it real or is it bullshit?
Jen Mleczko: It seems real, I think. It was just announced last year, and while the text and everything they promote seems great, it's really going to take time to see how quickly they can move these changes within the supply chain. Often, my concern with big food and ag is ... And they really need to focus on how to get small farmers into these supply chains. For example, I know McDonald's really wants to source beef sustainably, which is great, but they're looking at their 10 biggest suppliers. That kind of shoulders out small farmers who really are the ones doing good by the land and doing those more sustainable practices.
Jen Mleczko: While there is some good movement, I think in terms of sustainability, a lot of these big food companies are seeing the benefit that sustainability offers them, and they think people want it. They're responding to these markets of millennials and parents wanting healthier food and more transparency. But yeah, a lot of work needs to be done in terms of bringing small farmers, too, into it, who are the ones that are doing these more diversified farming systems, small and medium-sized farmers.
Quinn: Can a company like ... And this is so theoretical, but can a company like McDonald's, which, you know, largest real estate holder in the world, serving a billion burgers a year or whatever it is, can they even start to slightly move in the direction of sourcing things more, even, regionally, locally? Or is it just untenable for their volume? And if it's untenable, what do we do about that, because we don't have room in this race against time [inaudible 00:30:06]?
Jen Mleczko: I would like to think that, at least ... I think regionally, it would make sense that they would be sourcing ... I think they do. I think they source to what extent they can regionally and locally, but I think the issue is that they're sourcing from huge farms. I think the logistical challenge is getting the small farms, which, you know, I'm not quite sure if is possible, but I think our food system is going to call for the whole spectrum of farming systems, small farmers included, and then sometimes these larger systems that do produce a lot of food on a small amount of land, often. Yeah, I think it's a spectrum and I think we just need to pay attention to the specific production practices that these, whether it's industrial systems or whether it's small farmers, what they're using.
Quinn: I feel this way sometimes myself, and I've told Brian about this. I feel like I'm the bummer in every conversation these days, because it's always like, "Yeah, you've got to fight on this front, too." It's like, fuck.
Brian: Just to be clear, it is fun to hang out with you, and you are an enjoyable person with some fun, happy things to say sometimes.
Quinn: This is not a therapy session, but thank you. I appreciate that.
Jen Mleczko: It's good to hear.
Quinn: Those are things my children do not say to me in between, "Make me a banana sandwich." I'm like, "Just, please. I'm trying to get dressed." It is a lot, but these questions and actions do matter, and as much shit as millennials and Generation Z get, they are hellbent on transparency and are not interested in incremental change. I think as farfetched as it might seem, and there have certainly been some growing pains along the way and looking down their nose as these sort of things, but innovations like the blockchain and food and transparency and sourcing, when it comes to something like McDonald's, their connections to these industrial farms I think will be really interesting and compelling if we can start to move the needle on these things. But yeah, it's going to take a lot of action on that front.
Quinn: The next one, one of my favorite ones, is added sugars. I understand how people might say, "Are we drifting away from the quote-unquote conversations most vital to our survival as a species?" if we're talking about sugar, and I would counter and say, if you want to go A to B, C to D on it, added sugars are a nightmare for a variety of reasons, one which is diabetes is a health nightmare in the US. It's laying waste to our personal health and also crippling our healthcare system, which is making people sicker and also unable to afford insurance and sometimes flat out broke, leading them, as we've seen, to demand wholesale change, radical change, which sometimes means making rash decisions like electing leaders who might kill us all.
Quinn: Back to soda and candy and all of the other places that people don't realize where there's added sugars. Again, we're going to put this graphic up of all the companies that these big companies own, and I'm sure it's not even close to updated because every day it feels like they're buying. You like a healthy product? By the time you've heard about it from three friends and bought it in the store, it's been bought by PepsiCo or Coca-Cola, which can be great, because the distribution of those products can suddenly go crazy.
Jen Mleczko: Right, it's not necessarily a bad thing, but-
Quinn: No, no, no. But is it enough for them to be doing these things? Are they seeing the light or are they caving to pressure? If the answer is, they're starting to cave to pressure, it's like, great, let's pile it on. But I would love to hear your perspective on it.
Jen Mleczko: I would say that I think they're caving to pressure. When these four big food conglomerates that I mentioned, when they formed, they actually left this Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is or maybe now was considered the most powerful food lobbying group in DC and in the United States and consisted of all the iconic brands that you had already mentioned that we've come to know. It's for a long time been pushing its own agenda, spending millions of dollars to protect, quote-unquote, its industry by influencing policies. So, everything like [inaudible 00:34:50], this nutrition labeling, like added sugar.
Quinn: Quick pause. That was, I remember, one of Michelle Obama's big pushes, and I noticed some companies started doing it. Basically, the new nutrition label, as it was designed a couple years ago, it's almost two, three years ago now, I think, added sugars is supposed to be very clearly labeled. Some companies took it on the front foot and started doing it, but can you actually ... Do you have any update on that process and where it is and when it becomes required, yadda, yadda?
Jen Mleczko: From my understanding, actually, the GMA, this association, pushed the delay until 2020 to require it. But a lot of companies have been like, okay, if this is what people want, we'll do it, and because of this pressure, a lot of companies in the last couple years have been leaving this so-called powerful association, including the four that I mentioned that made their own Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, mainly because they were seeing this consumer demand and they were paying dues to this association that they thought was pointless because they ultimately want to mute this customer demand and if this is what people want, then they're going to start putting labels on it because they have to protect their own brand and reputation.
Jen Mleczko: So, in a positive light, I think seeing some of these changes and seeing even this big lobbying group break apart a bit, I'm sure it's still pretty powerful, is promising. I think it's showing that our food choices and the companies we choose to buy from at our supermarket really does send a signal to the industry on what we want and what we demand.
Brian: I always hope that's true.
Quinn: It seems like-
Brian: That when I go to the store [crosstalk 00:37:01].
Jen Mleczko: It seems a little too good to be true.
Quinn: No, it does, but look. They're buying these companies. Again, like we talked about, there are certainly dark stories of, "Hey, now you have to put corn syrup in your shit in order for us to make it taste better and sell better and distribute it more widely," and that's a hell of a devil's bargain. Or they buy it and just absorb it and it seems like it's the same brand but nobody who started there is there anymore, so the mission isn't there anymore. But you don't know that because it's the same packaging. But there's also cases of these companies being left relatively autonomous to do their thing and they're given the resources to make a difference. Make a difference to the bottom line and for PR purposes, but we're big fans here of whatever the means are, they justify the end. If it's for PR but it's making people healthier-
Quinn: Great, and if it's not crushing emergency room visits because people's foot fell off because they have diabetes, great. But my question is, is when do we start to have enough momentum so they're not just buying these healthy food companies, but we're starting to reduce the production and consumption of things like Diet Coke and Coke and candy and shit like that? Because that's been their money maker for 100 years, that's where Warren Buffett made all his cash, but when do we start to see a reduction in those things? When is there enough pressure and what can we do to create that kind of pressure on them? Not just, "Hey, also buy these things," but "Buy less of these things."
Jen Mleczko: I think-
Quinn: Is that possible?
Jen Mleczko: I think a lot of that will have to come from policy. I mean, in terms of diabetes and this access to cheap food, a lot of it is low income populations, people who are living at or near the poverty line that can't afford food, and so they reach for ... They can't afford healthy food, so they reach for these really highly subsidized within our food system processed foods that end up leading to these terrible, terrible health outcomes. I think it's really ... But it is ultimately up to us, I think, to tell our congressmen that we care about food policy and it's not just about food stamps, but it's really about creating a better food system that everyone has access to.
Jen Mleczko: I am grateful that I can go to the farmers' market downtown that's open year round, and they have eggs there and they have all these locally produced foods that are a little bit more expensive than the grocery store, sometimes a lot more, but I'm willing to dish that out for quality, but I'm lucky in that I can afford that.
Jen Mleczko: And so many people can't.
Brian: You can get eight things for $4 at McDonald's.
Jen Mleczko: Right, yeah.
Quinn: That's right.
Jen Mleczko: For a low income family that doesn't have the time to cook because they're working six jobs, it's, yeah, it's difficult. I think in terms of food justice and the whole food sovereignty movement, I think more people need to be aware of these things and get on board and foster these conversations of, equal access to healthy food should be something that everyone has. It's not quite the case yet.
Brian: [crosstalk 00:40:28] It doesn't even get talked about enough. [crosstalk 00:40:31]. That's what sucks. Bringing this up, and there would be so many people that are just like, "Well, there's just so many things to talk about." [crosstalk 00:40:38].
Quinn: It is a hell of a complicated one and we want to be specific, but yeah, again, in this case, it's coming back to, and I want to keep honing in on this, what are the things we can do to push these companies and starting to move them in the right directions on some of these things? What else are we missing? We love the question of not knowing what we don't know. What are we missing that you're just like, "Oh, we should be talking about this thing," or this haunts you every day? With respect to this question, I guess, not just food in general.
Jen Mleczko: With respect to this question, yeah. What often haunts me every day, especially when I go to the grocery store, and to put it harshly, the sheer ignorance that a lot of people have when they take that avocado and put it into their cart. I think if everyone stopped for a second to take a moment and think about where did that come from, who produced it, and how did it get here. Even a moment of thinking before you put it into a cart can have a really big impact. I think a lot of people just make their grocery list, go to store, and we've become so far removed from what's even in season. A cool app, actually, that I use-
Quinn: Brian loves apps.
Brian: I'm a big app guy.
Jen Mleczko: Are you? That's good. I think it's called, I think it's called ... I have to look at it. I think it's called-
Quinn: Please don't be Facebook, please don't be Facebook.
Jen Mleczko: [crosstalk 00:42:05]. Yeah, it's called Seasonal Food Guide. You can enter your location and it just gives you a list of all the foods that are in season. Even something as small as that, even if you're not buying it from your local grocery store, connects you a little bit to your region and what is produced there. I think if we focus on even buying US products. There was this study by the USDA that came out. So, half of our produce is imported. Half of all fruits and then one third of all vegetables are imported, and actually, the USDA predicts that in the future, that number will rise to 80%.
Quinn: Well, especially-
Jen Mleczko: Which is scary.
Quinn: ... If the middle of California keeps burning down, which is where the rest of it comes from.
Brian: Half of all fruit in America is imported?
Jen Mleczko: Imported, yeah, and one third of all vegetables, and they predict it to reach as high as 80% in the coming years.
Quinn: Well, we're barreling towards our seafood numbers. That's great, everybody.
Jen Mleczko: That's scary, because I feel like we have a lot of great resources here in the US, and we really need to be supporting our farmers here instead looking to other countries to import our food. Even things like, okay, if shopping at farmers' markets is too expensive or you just don't even have access to it, things just like shopping seasonably could be a good small step in the right direction.
Quinn: And affordability is a nightmare we have to address. I think the Farm Bill as we talk is still stuck in Congress, AKA they're not doing anything. We could do a series on the Farm Bill and its history and where it stands now. Affordability is a nightmare, but you know, I will say, a few things. One, we'll put all this stuff in the show notes, of course, all these resources. I think it's called localharvest.com, is a good list of where your farmers' markets are but also CSAs you can subscribe to. I've used that in the past. It's really great. It's not the fanciest website in the world, but there are ways to take action and find these things. That app you mentioned, what is it again? Say it again.
Jen Mleczko: It's called Seasonal Food Guide.
Brian: It's a website too.
Quinn: Thanks, Brian.
Brian: You're welcome.
Quinn: I'm not sure how many of these folks listen to us. I'd love to see more and more, but a lot of farmers' markets also take SNAP or are moving towards that. Also, by the way, if you're lucky enough to be someone who isn't partial to SNAP, guess what? You can often donate to those programs in your city or town to support SNAP at those farmers' markets. Or, just start it from scratch. You can go and ask. Show up to your farmers' market and say, "Do you take SNAP?"
Brian: Can you tell them, what is SNAP?
Quinn: Go for it.
Jen Mleczko: I should know the acronym, but it's the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program? I think that's it.
Brian: SNAP, you nailed it.
Jen Mleczko: They're what people call food stamps. If you're homeless or low income, then you have access to this monthly supplement to supplement your food. I'm glad you mentioned that, Quinn, because there is a big movement and I know in DC especially, most farmers' markets actually accept SNAP and then this other, [Equip 00:45:24], which I think it's actually just for DC, another supplemental nutrition program. It's cool because I once visited a farmers' market down in Southeast where there's a lot of low income ... It's a pretty big low income population there, and I was there with a friend. We stopped by a farmers' market, and we were the only ones paying cash.
Jen Mleczko: Everyone was paying with these supplemental ... Which is really cool to see, that people were actively going there and getting their healthy food in this manner. That was really promising.
Quinn: That's awesome, and there's more of those all over the country, or there should be, and ways, again, if you are lucky enough, have worked hard enough, a combination of those, I'm sure, it's America, to be in a position to help that, you can go to your farmers' market. If you've never been to one, again, you can find it online really easily. Go there. There's usually a headquarters desk or something, if they take tokens or something, they're selling tote bags. Ask them if they take SNAP.
Quinn: If they do, you can usually donate to the program to help fund that to grow it, because those funds are not unlimited by any stretch. Or, if they say no, you can say, "How can we make that happen? Who do I talk to to help make that happen?" You will literally change lives. You will make people healthier. Then the other side of it once that's going or if it's already going, you can say, "Hey, how can I help get the word out about this program? Not just to my friends, who could also help supplement the program, but to advertise to those folks who could most take advantage of it." Local newspaper, local websites, local radio stations, flyers at a 7 Eleven. The point is, you want to make a difference in 2018 and help get people healthier and help to get them off of some of these bigger corporations that are very slowly becoming interested in making the world a healthier place. This is the way to do it.
Jen Mleczko: And also promote local farmers and farmers' markets.
Quinn: Absolutely. So, all right, let's barrel towards our conclusion here. Thank you for your time. These are companies. You know, everybody is still part of capitalism, I guess, in some ways, but we do like-
Jen Mleczko: Whether you like it or not.
Quinn: Yep. We do like to point our listeners towards these specific ways they can use their voice, their vote, and their dollar. What do you feel among those things has been the most effective in, let's say, the past five years and going forward, the next two to five years to be the most effective? Again, let's get pretty specific with these things.
Jen Mleczko: In terms of most effective, I think if you have access to farmers' markets, do it, buy it, contribute. If you don't, I think pay attention to the brands that you're buying from. There are a bunch of cool online resources and studies that have come out that are showing which companies are doing good and which companies are really falling behind. To even get a sense of where we're at, yeah, I think paying attention to the brands and if there's a brand that you particularly love, it wouldn't hurt to do some research. You could pretty much find it, it usually takes a minute to google. You can pretty quickly see where they're at. You'd be pleasantly surprised sometimes on what companies are doing towards sustainability. I know I have been in just some of my research. There's a lot of buying power there. Eat less meat if you can. Obviously, that's a good one, and I think-
Brian: All about it.
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, use these resources to connect with your region and eat at least seasonably. In terms of policy, you can get involved at the local level. The Farm Bill is a huge thing, but I know in DC, we have a Food Policy Council that governs a lot of food happenings in DC. I'm sure those exist at local levels elsewhere. That is a great way to get involved with your local food system and drive change that way. Yeah, and I think just getting the conversation going about how policy in these big ag institutions shape our dietary choices. Just to be aware of these influences and put your money where your mouth is in terms of supporting the kind of food system you want to see.
Quinn: Sure, and I think that dials it down. What I was hoping we could work towards is, you're not going to be able to call the CEO of Nestlé and convince them to bottle their water a specific way or to stop using monocrops. And it might really seem like you're the tiniest fish in the world, kind of like voting. But start literally with your dollar. If you're overwhelmed by it all, I get it, I empathize with it. What you buy every week and where you buy it. It's like when your local sandwich shop starts using Square and they discover they haven't sold a roast beef sandwich in 10 years, they had no idea because they had no way to track it. You're a tiny fish, but, you know, you start to push everyone in your town to stop buying Coca-Cola and your store might just start to notice that they're not selling as much, and then they have to report that. It's a tiny fucking blip, but it matters, and we need to do it. Just start with your dollar. Awesome.
Brian: Love it. That was great.
Quinn: Brian, bring us home here.
Brian: I'm going to bring everybody home.
Quinn: Okay, that's great.
Brian: Well, the three of us. Again, Jennifer, seriously, thank you so much for being here and chatting with us.
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, no problem.
Brian: This has been super informative, and I hope people listen and take heed. We have ... Oh, wait, I skipped that part. I left that out. Jennifer, who else should we talk to?
Brian: Don't sigh at me like that. Jennifer, we've loved getting recommendations for other people to talk to from our guests, because you are great and you know great people. If you don't know anybody now, you can tell us later, but anybody who's kicking ass like you are, we'd love to-
Quinn: It doesn't have to be food. It can be space, it can be microbiology. You know, whatever. Things that are affecting everybody now or in the next 10 years, basically.
Jen Mleczko: I would go and push people to go talk to their local farmers and people who are doing innovative work in their communities. I think that's where the real game changers are [crosstalk 00:51:50] are the people that you don't even realize you interact with often through these farmers' markets and these more innovative food hubs. Yeah, I would say that.
Quinn: Awesome. We will find some.
Brian: Yeah, that would be great.
Quinn: Rock and roll.
Brian: Now onto the part that I was going to say before and screwed up.
Quinn: Take your time, Brian.
Brian: It's lightning round time. Quinn and I are going to ask you a few questions. Quinn's going to ask you really long ones that aren't lightning round questions and then I'll ask you some real lightning round questions.
Quinn: Do you feel like there's a tension here, Jennifer? That maybe you don't want to be part of?
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, I'm not quite sure. I'm trying to stay out of it, though.
Quinn: There's that great scene from Breaking Bad where Jesse's sitting at the dinner table with the family and just slurping down the milk and he's just like, "This feels really awkward." And you know, sometimes I feel like that's what Jennifer has to deal with.
Jen Mleczko: I'm not in the room, so maybe I don't feel as ...
Quinn: Then you're not wearing the cool slippers that we're wearing. Brian-
Jen Mleczko: I have my own cool slippers, so ...
Brian: Oh, nice.
Quinn: He doesn't let me walk on the rug anymore.
Brian: Well, we have a very nice rug, and we should keep it clean.
Quinn: Yeah, we shouldn't have bought a white rug.
Brian: Can we get to the questions?
Quinn: Yeah, okay, lightning round. Jennifer, hey, when was the first time in your life when you realized you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful?
Jen Mleczko: This was early in my college career. I was really lost in college for my background and what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go with my career. I was used to spending my summers in Poland, so I decided to give it a shot and try and do an internship or work over the summer there. I kind of decided to go big and kind of ridiculous and actually ended up in the president of Poland's office as an intern.
Jen Mleczko: It was pretty unbelievable. I got to meet the president and everything, but I had zero experience in public administration. I'm fluent in Polish, but it wasn't a strong language at that point, and it was one of the most terrifying and rewarding experiences. That really broke down barriers for me. It showed me that if you are passionate and if you have drive, you can accomplish a lot, even if you don't really know much about it or have the experience. That was the moment of, hey, I can run with this, or I can do more.
Brian: Yeah, that's wild.
Quinn: That's pretty impressive. Most people, that's not where they finish up, but that's awesome and it takes some hustle. I'm proud to say we've had a lot of awesome hustlers on this show. It maybe seems like to them or they're humble enough to say that they accidentally ended up in these places, but clearly, you worked your way there, and that's pretty dope.
Jen Mleczko: It was a little bit of luck, but it was an amazing experience for sure.
Quinn: Well, it's all what you make of it. Hey, who is someone in your life that's positively impacted your work in the past six months? You cannot say Brian.
Jen Mleczko: Okay.
Brian: You were going to, weren't you?
Jen Mleczko: So, I would say, and this has been more of ongoing support, but I had .. So, Dr. Graddy-Lovelace is an all-in-one professor, advisor, and mentor, and she recently got this amazing award for community-based research. Her passion for driving equitable change and justice in the food system is unmatched. I've always looked up to her and I've been working with her and a couple other people on some academic work, hopefully to be published soon. Yeah, she's definitely been an ongoing inspiration.
Brian: That's like Quinn for me.
Quinn: [crosstalk 00:55:42].
Brian: I'm being serious.
Quinn: I'll stop walking on the rug. You don't have to-
Brian: Just so you know, Jen, I was being serious.
Quinn: That's very kind of you. I'm not about to publish anything academic, nor am I a three-in-one ... Anyways.
Brian: Hey, Jen, what do you do specifically when you feel overwhelmed?
Jen Mleczko: Friends and wine.
Quinn: In what order, if I could?
Jen Mleczko: You know-
Brian: Hopefully together.
Jen Mleczko: It depends, you know.
Jen Mleczko: Sometimes it's a chill night. Sometimes it's going out and dancing it all out. You know, it's all about balance, I think.
Brian: That's a good one. Jen, how do you consume the news?
Jen Mleczko: I only very recently have gone on the Twitter game. I usually actually love the news apps. I have a few on my phone. Washington Post is my go-to, but I try and scan headlines of the others, so I'm kind of a little ... I mean, not old school in the sense that I'm using apps, but I do like the newspapers.
Brian: Awesome. Jen, if you could Amazon Prime one book to Donald Trump, what would it be?
Jen Mleczko: Recently, I've been reading The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry to go along with this whole agricultural theme. I think the current president can use some humility and humbleness and better touch base with rural America, and this book kind of does that. It's a little old. It was written in the 70s.
Brian: Oh, wow.
Jen Mleczko: It's kind of sad to think how accurate it still is. I mean, how we haven't really improved much, but hopefully that'll change. Yeah, I would Amazon Prime him that book.
Quinn: Rock and roll, it's going on the list.
Brian: It's going on our official Amazon Prime list. All right, and speaking of you just joining Twitter, where can our followers find you online?
Jen Mleczko: My handle is my first and last name, Jennifer Mleczko.
Brian: Oh, great, okay.
Jen Mleczko: Tough last name to spell, but look up "milk" in Polish, and it'll come up.
Quinn: Awesome. Man, Jennifer, thank you so much for your time today. I know at times it might have felt like it was all over the place. Obviously, there's a lot, but I do really like where we dialed it down to, which is [crosstalk 00:57:55] a lot, but here's the one thing you can do.
Jen Mleczko: Thanks for keeping it on track.
Quinn: I mean, barely.
Brian: It was all me.
Quinn: It was, as usual. It's all Brian. It does matter, and we'd love to have you back to dig into each of these things a little more down the line if you're not terrified.
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, no. You guys weren't as scary, so it's good.
Brian: Weren't as scary as you thought or what? What do you mean?
Quinn: Hold on. What?
Brian: Just kidding.
Jen Mleczko: No, I mean that in the best possible sense.
Brian: Just kidding.
Quinn: She's out of here. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time today.
Brian: We really appreciate it.
Quinn: Yeah, we'll talk to you more soon. Keep kicking ass.
Jen Mleczko: Yeah, thanks.
Brian: Thank you. Thank you for all you do.
Jen Mleczko: [crosstalk 00:58:32]. No worries. Take care.
Quinn: Yeah, you too. Bye.
Jen Mleczko: You guys, too. Thanks.
Quinn: Thanks to our incredible guest today, and thanks to all of you for tuning in. We hope this episode has made your commute or awesome workout or dish washing or fucking dog walking late at night that much more pleasant. As a reminder, please subscribe to our free email newsletter at importantnotimportant.com. It is all the news most vital to our survival as a species.
Brian: And you can follow us all over the internet. You can find us on Twitter @importantnotimp. It's so weird. Also on Facebook and Instagram @importantnotimportant, Pinterest and Tumblr, the same thing. So check us out, follow us, share us, like us, you know the deal. And please subscribe to our show wherever you listen to things like this, and if you're really fucking awesome, rate us on Apple Podcasts. Keep the lights on. Thanks.
Brian: And you can find the show notes from today right in your little podcast player and at our website, importantnotimportant.com.
Quinn: Thanks to the very awesome Tim Blane for our jammin' music, to all of you for listening, and finally, most importantly, to our moms for making us. Have a great day.
Brian: Thanks, guys.
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