NRDC Celebrates Food Heroes

No red carpet, no haute-couture gowns, no lavish jewelry and no TV crews. Instead, a small crowd intent on transforming agriculture and the food system, and committed to leaving this world a better place than they found it.

Last night in San Francisco, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Growing Green Awards celebrated four leaders of the American sustainable farming and food movement.

About 400 people had purchased their seat to the charity event co-chaired by Wendy Schmidt, president of The Schmidt Family Foundation and more widely known as the spouse of Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt; Bob Epstein, co-founder of software company Sybase; and Amy Rao, founder and CEO of Integrated Archive Systems.

“We started the Growing Green Awards three years ago in order to encourage and reward innovation in all aspects of sustainable food systems,” Bob Epstein, a NRDC trustee and the program creator, told me. “Our inspiration is the Goldman Environmental Prize. Although we are early in the process, we want to have a similar effect with respect to bringing attention to innovators.”

Organic strawberry farming pioneer Jim Cochran received a $10,000-cash prize as this year’s Food Producer Award recipient; Molly Rockamann, founder of EarthDance, was the first one to receive the new Young Food Leader Award (for individuals under the age of 30) and its $5,000-cash prize, for her unique apprenticeship program in Missouri; the famous “Renegade Lunch Lady” Ann Cooper, also founder of the Food and Family Foundation, was recognized for her tireless work transforming school lunches around the country (Knowledge Leader); Pam Marrone, founder and CEO of Marrone Bio Innovations, was distinguished as this year’s Business Leader for her work developing environmentally responsible bio-pesticide alternatives for organic and conventional farming.

Young Food Leader Award recipient, Molly Rockamann.

Hosted by local political satirist Will Durst, the evening was a joyous affair. The audience was treated to an impromptu bluegrass voice duet by Molly Rockamann and her mother; a food quiz commented by authors and activists Michael Pollan, Nicolette Hahn Niman and Laurie David (“Q: How much of the antibiotics consumed in the U.S. go to livestock? A: 80%. Clarification given by the panel: 70% used preemptively for healthy animals + 10% given to sick subjects). The food, delicious, simple, and expectedly procured from sustainable sources, came for the kitchen of Yoshi’s Executive Chef Shotaro ‘Sho’ Kamio.

Amid the festivities, however, no one was afforded the luxury to forget about the evening’s agenda: encouraging innovation, promoting talent, and gathering resources to meet the urgent need for a reformed food system in a nation whose growing population is threatened by dwindling natural resources, degraded environmental conditions, and decaying public health.

“The sustainable food movement that is sweeping across America combines protecting the environment with enjoying good food, and it needs leaders!” claimed Frances Beinecke, President of NRDC.

"Renegade Lunch Lady" Chef Ann Cooper, Knowledge Award winner.

Founded in 1970 by a group of law students and attorneys at the forefront of the environmental movement, NRDC enjoys a network of 1.3 million members and online activists, as well as a staff of more than 300 lawyers, scientists and policy experts in its New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Beijing offices. NRDC lawyers helped write some of America’s bedrock environmental laws. In recent years, it has embraced food and agriculture as a powerful vehicle through which to pursue its mission “to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all living things.”

“NRDC has launched several campaigns to promote food that protects human health, animal welfare and natural ecosystems,” Executive Director Peter Lehner reminded the audience. It has linked its campaigns for clean water to pollution from animal factory farms, and its call to action against climate change to food choices.

Picked by judges Dan Barber, Michael Pollan, Maria Rodale and Tom Tomich, these year’s winners will keep pushing further the agenda promoted by NRDC to the best of their abilities: promoting and deploying healthy school lunches in order to raise a healthier young generation; training new farmers with a powerful bend toward land stewardship and conservation; providing farmers with natural intrans that support thriving crops without damaging the soil, the water, the air or the people; growing delicious strawberries without the fungus-killing carcinogen and neurotoxin known as methyl iodide, while affording historically-exploited farm workers the same rights and dignity as those that workers in other sectors of the economy are entitled to.

Until next year… onward and upward!

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