America’s Food System Is a Mirror for Our Society and Culture

Amanda Oborne at Ecotrust headquarters in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Sumaya Agha.

Amanda Oborne is Vice President of Food & Farms at Portland, Oregon-based Ecotrust, “a catalyst for radical, practical change.” Fast Company recently named her one of the most creative people in business.

And me? I could use some help making sense of the world.

I’ve been interviewing people professionally for twenty years. It’s the part of my job I like best. So why not find smart people and ask them to share an insight that experience has given them, something important that I probably wouldn’t know, or think about.

Thoughtful people. All sorts. Like a team of advisors. To help me, and hopefully you, more capably contend with timely, complex issues and ideas.

Amanda immediately came to mind. Since a mutual friend introduced us, I’ve known her to be a sharp thinker, informed and opinionated. I admire the depth of her consideration and her will to make a difference.


From the vantage point your work provides, what have you learned about how things work that those of us outside the industry don’t understand or adequately appreciate? What’s one thing we should think more about?

Our food system is a mirror for our society and culture — that’s what I find really fascinating. The American food system reveals the composition, complexity, values and priorities of the country, whether you’re looking at politics, health, economics or the environment.

And it’s all connected. In food system work, any thread you pull will start to unravel a whole tapestry of issues that you never would’ve known were connected.

Such as?

There are all kinds of examples. From the earliest days, what we refer to as “Big Ag” or corporate agriculture was built on colonialism, land grabbing, exploitation and slavery. Big Agriculture became what it is because of the way we use land and labor. Still today, there’s a straight, short line between the way we eat and immigration reform or trade policy. Or how we use land today, how we steward or extract resources.

Public health, malnutrition, epigenetics…all of those issues connect right back to our food system. But most people don’t think about that when they’re cruising the aisles at the grocery store.

Why should people be thinking about it?

Well, that answer seems obvious to me: issues of health, social capital, interconnectedness, exploitation. All those things feel like they could or should be important to us.

How might these issues be immediate and actionable?

It’s all immediate, it’s all actionable — because we have to eat. It just depends on what action you’re trying to stimulate.

Are you trying to build social capital? Are you trying to improve your own health or the health of your community? Are you politically motivated? Depending what’s important to you, there’s something for you to work on in the food system, and some relatively straightforward action.

You can plant a tomato in a pot on the balcony of your apartment. You can engage in a community garden or a church garden effort. You could work on Farm to School. It’s fractal — you can work at any scale, from your own backyard or your own kitchen all the way up to global food policy and every single layer in between.

The easiest and most immediate thing you can do is cook. Cook on a regular basis. Learn some basic techniques for a couple dishes you really like. That doesn’t mean you have to go be Martha Stewart, but you have to make time for it, carve out 30 or 45 minutes for food prep and then 20 or 30 minutes to sit down and eat.

We don’t cook as a culture right now, largely because every household is running at Mach 12 all the time, with every member of the family going in a different direction. What’s sacrificed in all that are the connections that come with cooking and eating together.

If you’re in a household with more than one person, there are massive implications to carving out the time for cooking. It’s kinetic. There’s activity suddenly, and life attracts life. Your house will smell different. It will feel different. All of that has, to use a techie term, an autonomic effect, a snowball effect, that generates life and activity and vigor in a household, which then begets further life and activity and vigor.

Cooking’s a really big deal, and it’s impossible to do in the way we’ve set up our work life. This is one of those aspects where you pull on the thread of cooking and you unravel the way we as a culture work: work policies, work expectations, the always-on nature of our technology. If you re-architect your life in a way that allows time for cooking, it’s going to have implications on a bunch of other things.

It can be harder to find the motivation to go to that effort if you live alone, but there are still benefits. You’re going to feel more nourished than you do when you’re eating out of a bag or a box.

Of all the paths you could have taken professionally, what made you go in this direction?

I read a book that was on my dad’s bookshelf: The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

There’s actually a whole cohort of people who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and had the same “What the fuck?” moment of I had no idea that that’s how our food system worked, the river of corn and all the things that Michael Pollan talks about in the book.

My parents had recently become small ranchers, so I started watching all the movies, King Corn, Food, Inc., all that stuff, getting engrossed with the topic. Which is what I do. I’ve switched sectors repeatedly in my career, from apparel to marketing to technology. I’ve jumped around a lot because I like learning things, so I go on a really deep dive and then, once I feel like I’ve chewed the flavor out of a subject, I get bored and move on to the next thing. Seven years is the longest I’ve worked anywhere.

That’s the other fascinating thing about the food system: there are so many dimensions to it. It’s hard to chew the flavor out of.

I’d been working in the fitness industry when I read Omnivore’s Dilemma and my parents opened the ranch. I had a background in both marketing and technology, but nothing in food. The woman who was hiring at Ecotrust said, “I can teach you food, but that other stuff I don’t know, so come help us build this platform.”

I figured that I would learn a lot, and that it would evolve into something really interesting. That was sort of the beginning of the pathway that ended in building the Redd campus, two whole city blocks in Central Eastside, industrial Portland dedicated to regional food systems.

What should we be paying attention to? What will happen next?

I am obsessed right now with meat, both at a regional scale and at a global scale.

We talk a lot about population growth. We’re gonna hit nine billion souls globally by 2050, I think is the statistic. But there’s an even more interesting shift, which is not just total mouths to feed, but the shift in socioeconomic status in two of those big population centers, China and India. And the numbers are astronomical, the people shifting into the middle class in those countries. They want to eat the same things that all of us ‘Richie Riches’ in the West have been eating, which is meat.

Those aren’t cultures that had a lot of meat in their cuisine before. If anything, if you could afford to eat meat, it was in very small quantities, almost as a condiment — in a rice dish, for example. Now they’re eating burgers and steaks, big center-of-the-plate servings, which is a disaster from a climate/environmental perspective.

That’s a really, really big deal. It’s gonna shift the food system in the direction that we’ve been trying to backpedal from in this country, now that we see its disastrous effects. Or at least those of us paying attention to what would benefit the food system and benefit the climate see.

“Less meat, better meat” is the mantra that I operate from here in the Northwest because differentiated, grass-finished, pastured, well-raised proteins can do a lot of good, both economically and environmentally.

We should be eating far less meat overall. God bless the vegans and the vegetarians. The meat that we do eat should be in relatively small, precious quantities that have been well-raised and grass-finished or pastured, depending on the protein. I spend a ton of time thinking about meat.

What else is on your brain?

People tend to be a little bit obsessed with farmers markets and diversified mixed vegetable operations, all those beautiful fruit and vegetable farmer stands. Farmers markets wake people up, they connect people to where their food comes from, they build community and social capital, but they’re not gonna shift the food system at large.

A lot of the work that I’m doing now is on shifting that core central food system, but I think there’s an interim step between the small farmers market scale of things, and the full-blown food system shifting: CSAs (community supported agriculture) and CSFs (community supported fisheries) and buying clubs, where you can buy meat directly from ranchers, too.

In addition to telling people to cook, I’ll say: “Buy a freezer.” Buy a chest freezer for your basement or a stand up freezer for your garage. Freezer space will allow you to buy direct from ranchers, and if you’re buying direct from ranchers, you’re buying into a whole different system that’s selling only grass-finished, regeneratively produced meat.

Buying direct from ranchers is a big deal. It’s not the be-all-end-all solution because it’s not convenient in the way that grocery stores are, but yeah. Buy a freezer.

How do you maintain hope?

There’s no easy answer for that one. The challenges feel overwhelming, and it’s hard to see how we come out of this okay. I’ve taken up meditation, regular walking, all kinds of therapeutic actions. And cooking actually does do it for me.

I don’t profess to be an awesome cook, but I do spend a fair bit of energy on it. And I totally dig it now. I really enjoy it. I grow a lot of tomatoes and can a lot of tomato sauce and that kind of thing.

All of those small, living-in-the-moment actions help a lot. Counter to the doom and gloom that we’ve been living with since Election Day last year, there’s a countervailing force bubbling up in a lot of places that I tap into. I work with farmers and ranchers and fishermen and food system people, and thoughtful people from other disciplines that are really interested in reconnecting to each other in a meaningful way. That is super inspiring and energizing. The more I can lean into that piece of it, the better.


Follow Amanda Oborne on Twitter.

Dave Weich is the president and chief strategist at Sheepscot Creative. He’s also on Twitter.

You, reader! — know someone with wisdom to share? Recommend a subject for this interview series.