American Food Heroes

By: Jane Black  |  September/October 2017

At EatingWell, we've been telling stories about innovators, creative problem solvers and visionaries since we got started back in 1990. And while we always give plenty of pages in the magazine and on the website—and lots of delicious effort—to our recipes, tips and techniques, it's our devotion to writing about where our food comes from and how it's produced that makes EatingWell unique.

To honor this legacy and to shine an even brighter light on all the great changes happening in our food system today, we are announcing our first annual American Food Heroes awards. We solicited nominations from food, nutrition and policy experts, journalists, our advisory board and readers like you. Our editorial team reviewed entries, researched and debated. We wanted the list to reflect recent achievements and for each hero to be someone making an outsized impact on their particular area of focus. Eventually we landed on the 10 people profiled here.

This year's heroes are tackling a diverse set of challenges, from cleaning up fast food to making school lunches healthier. One has developed a system of aquaculture known as 3-D farming and through his nonprofit helps farmers around the country start up their own 3-D farms. There's a chef fighting for immigration reform. And a CEO of a big food company has become one of the loudest voices fighting for transparency in food labeling.

What all of this year's heroes have in common: they make us hopeful. We are living in a golden age. There has perhaps never been a time with more positive changes happening around food. So join us in giving it up for this year's heroes!

 
 

1. Bren Smith, Executive Director of GreenWave and owner of Thimble Island Ocean Farm

Bren Smith

Modeling a Better Way to Grow Seafood

On paper, Bren Smith is not a likely candidate to save the oceans. He can't swim. He's allergic to most shellfish. For years he went to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to fish commercially, catching everything he could get his hands on. He was, by his own description, a cog in an unsustainable machine. Then one day in 1992, he was standing on the deck of a factory trawler in the Bering Sea, surrounded by a sea of dead bycatch. That same season the cod stocks crashed back home in Newfoundland. He decided to do something different.

Smith moved to Connecticut and began farming oysters. But two hurricanes, Irene and Sandy, decimated his farm. He learned the hard way that today's extreme weather demands a hardier system and more diversified crops. His solution: a system of 3-D underwater farms that grow oysters just off the ocean floor and scallops, mussels and kelp on ropes above. The shellfish clean and clear the water, providing a more attractive habitat for fish. The kelp feeds on nitrogen that is all too plentiful in our oceans thanks to agricultural runoff.

The system is remarkable. By using the entire water column, Smith's 3-D farms can grow 10 tons of sea vegetables and 150,000 shellfish on each acre per year. The kelp sequesters carbon and slows ocean acidification; expanding the industry will create jobs (potentially 50 million, according to a 2016 World Bank report) and could help feed the planet: a network of kelp farms in just under 5 percent of U.S. waters could produce 150 million tons of protein annually, equivalent to 6.8 trillion hamburgers.

And so Smith has set out to build that network. Through his nonprofit GreenWave, established in 2014, he trains new 3-D sea farmers, conducts R&D for growing and processing seaweed and lobbies state lawmakers to overturn rules that prevent seaweed farming. One of his slogans: Legalize the other weed.

By the end of the year, GreenWave will have its first 25 farmers on the water. Over time, Smith hopes to build clusters of farms that can process their sea crops into food for companies like Google and Patagonia and sustainable fertilizer for land farmers. And it's not as crazy as it seems. Smith has a standing order for half a million pounds of kelp, only a fraction of which he can produce at his farm on Long Island Sound. "The reason I like this space so much is that it's a chance to do food right," Smith says. "It's a blank slate with limitless possibility."

Related: 5 of the Healthiest Fish to Eat (and 5 to Avoid)

2. Bob Moore, Founder, President & CEO, Bob's Red Mill

Bob Moore

Spreading the Gospel of Whole Grains

There are more than a few good reasons to praise Bob Moore. For one, had he not had an epiphany back in the 1960s about the health benefits (and deliciousness) of whole grains, Americans wouldn't have such easy access to products from amaranth flour to spelt berries to stone-ground cornmeal. And then there's his generosity: since 2010, Moore has donated more than $35 million to various universities to fund research into reducing the prevalence of chronic diseases and improving Americans' diets. Oh—and in 2010, at age 81, Moore decided not to sell his company and cash out but to give it to his employees through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, which allows them to accrue stock in the company and cash out their shares when they leave or retire.

Any one of these would be enough to make Moore a hero. But none of them quite captures the delight—one of Moore's favorite words—and ebullient spirit of this very active 88-year-old. He wakes up each day at 6 a.m., heads to the Bob's Red Mill restaurant in Milwaukie, Oregon, for a bowl of hot cereal; then it's off to the office, where he is involved in, well, everything. What does he consider one of his greatest achievements? Winning the Golden Spurtle at the 2016 Annual World Porridge Making Championship. "I practiced and practiced," he said. "We soaked the oats for a long time and a short time, added the salt before and after. For two months, we ate so many oats. And now according to the Scots, the world authority on oats, we make the best porridge in the world. That is something." Indeed.

3. Ron Shaich, CEO, Panera Bread

Ron Shaich

Cleaning Up Fast Food

"I know no one who says, 'I want more titanium dioxide in my food,' " says Ron Shaich, the CEO of Panera Bread. "It's that simple."

This utterly sensible attitude should be commonplace. But in a world where corporate leaders are often more mindful of their stock price than their customers' health, Shaich sets the bar. His No-No List, announced in 2014, scrubbed Panera's menu of all preservatives, artificial colors and flavors. Within two years, the company had disappeared 96 ingredients, from acesulfame K to triacetin, and reformulated hundreds of recipes.

The journey to clean food, though, is not new at Panera. It was the first to deliver fresh dough to bake in its stores, then in 2004 the first to use only antibiotic-free chicken, and later the first national chain to voluntarily post calories on its menus. With an annualized growth of 17 percent for the last 20 years, it's no wonder that other restaurant chains are now following his lead.

At 63, you might think Shaich would be considering slowing down. (Having sold Panera this past spring to European investors for $7.5 billion, he certainly could.) But whatever the topic, Shaich overflows with energy and moxie. "What are these guys afraid of?" he says of restaurants that fight change and transparency. "If you're embarrassed about your food, don't hide it. Change it."

Related: 10 Ways Big Food Is Changing to Meet Consumer Demand

4. José Andrés, Chef and Owner, ThinkFood Group

José Andrés

Fighting for Immigration Reform

When José Andrés took the stage at a recent dinner in his honor in Miami, he didn't use his platform to plug his newest (and 27th) restaurant or his impressive charitable work feeding hungry kids. Instead, he tore off his white chef's coat to reveal a black T-shirt with red lettering: I am an immigrant. He got a standing ovation.

It was all very Clark Kent—if the mild-mannered newspaper reporter were an extroverted, twinkly-eyed, globetrotting chef. While this shtick, a direct response to President Donald Trump's call to build a wall on the border with Mexico, is new, his activism is not. Andrés inserted himself into politics as soon as he arrived in Washington, D.C., as a 23-year-old chef, from Spain via New York City. He volunteered at DC Central Kitchen, a soup kitchen that offers culinary training to the unemployed and turns wasted food into meals for the needy. Later, he took the concept global, launching World Central Kitchen to develop restaurants, a cooking school and coffee roasteries in countries including Haiti, Nicaragua and Zambia.

Fighting hunger, helping people eat better and supporting local farmers are, of course, standard issues for celebrity chefs, who often stick with less controversial causes. But Andrés has fearlessly plunged into the political debate around immigration. It began when then-candidate Trump called Mexicans drug runners and rapists, and Andrés pulled his planned restaurant out of Trump's new Washington hotel. (Trump slapped him with a $10 million lawsuit, which has since been settled.) But the issue is still central to Andrés personally and professionally: according to one report, undocumented workers make up at least 10 percent of the hospitality industry and 13 percent of farmworkers, though the numbers are probably higher. In February, when protesters called for a "Day Without Immigrants," Andrés shut down five of his Washington restaurants. Chefs, the 48-year-old says, can't pick and choose their issues—fighting hunger but not, say, for immigrants' rights. "This [activism] is not something I planned. It's not something I prepared myself for," he says. "But when someone gives you a platform, you have to use it."

5. Betti Wiggins, Officer of Nutrition Services, Houston Independent School District

Betti Wiggins

Delivering Healthier School Lunches

Betti Wiggins never had one moment that radicalized her. The push to take action surrounded her: rising obesity and diabetes rates; projections that this generation of kids would live shorter lives than their parents; the phenomenon of the 100-pound 6-year-old. "You'd have to be dead not to realize what's happening with our food system," she says with characteristic humor. "I thought I could make an impact."

And so she has. One of her first moves as executive director of the Office of School Nutrition for Detroit Public Schools was to fire the food-service contractor that provided school meals. This saved big bucks and allowed her to more than double the amount spent on actual food. Today, what you'll find on Detroit school trays—potato-crusted pollack and Michigan sweet corn—is as impressive as what you won't: iceberg lettuce, corn dogs and chocolate milk. Over time, Wiggins built a system that feeds all 57,000 students at 141 schools two, sometimes three, meals a day for free. (Previously, 72 percent qualified for free food.) She also christened 80 school gardens, six hoop houses and a 2.5-acre production farm within the Detroit city limits.

Wiggins's success lies in her pragmatism. Her ban on chocolate milk had less to do with its high sugar content than the fact that kids don't have enough time to eat. Let's face it, kids always drink the chocolate milk first, leaving less room for the fruits and vegetables. "You're a 5-year-old. Of course that's what you're going to do," she says. Though many school-food reformers hail cooked-from-scratch food as fresher and more healthful, Wiggins says that doesn't make practical or financial sense in Detroit. "I had schools that were built before Jesus was born," she says. Instead, her cooks steamed brown rice, black-eyed peas and frozen vegetables and reheated precooked chicken breasts. No apologies necessary.

Wiggins's philosophy: "Just like pencils and books, kids need a good diet to be educated." This school year, she starts in Houston, where 215,000 public-school students should expect school lunch to get a whole lot better.

6. Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy, Center for Science in the Public Interest

Margo Wootan

Advocating for Menu Labeling

If you recently passed on a blueberry scone at Starbucks when you saw it had 420 calories, you probably have Margo Wootan to thank. For 25 years, she has been an indefatigable advocate in Washington, D.C., for sensible nutrition policies. No easy task. And yet, she has amassed an impressive list of accomplishments, including a ban on trans fats, healthier guidelines for school meals, restricted marketing of junk food to children and (almost) mandatory calorie labeling on chain-restaurant menus.

Wootan's success rate in do-nothing Washington is a testament to her mastery of both the substance and the art of the deal. But it is her tirelessness, underpinned by a defiant optimism that right can prevail, that sets her apart. Menu labeling is a case in point.

Beginning in 2002, Wootan became increasingly alarmed by the jaw-dropping number of calories in many restaurant meals and the number of times per week Americans were eating them. So she maneuvered and cajoled policymakers to mandate that chain restaurants list calories on their menus. At her urging, 23 state and local governments passed laws, and progressive companies like Starbucks and Le Pain Quotidien voluntarily posted calories nationally. In 2010, even Congress took action. A national law was scheduled to take effect on May 5 of this year.

Except it didn't. At the behest of the pizza lobby, the Trump administration postponed implementation for at least another year. But if that looked to others like 15 years of work was wasted, it didn't to Wootan: "This isn't the first bump in the road that I've experienced with menu labeling," she says. "We'll do all we can to ensure that the FDA doesn't cave to industry pressure for further delay, or worse yet, weaken the policy" at consumers' expense.

Related: Why We Love the New Nutrition Facts Label

7. Lee DeHaan, Lead Scientist, Kernza® Domestication Program, The Land Institute

 Lee DeHaan

Breeding a More Sustainable Wheat

Once upon a time, long before settlers transformed the American Midwest into some of the most productive farmland in the world, it was a vast prairie: a tangle of grasses, flowering plants, shrubs and sedges. Their roots reached deep into the ground, storing nutrients and energy and preventing erosion.

Settlers' plows tore up that underground network, replacing it with corn and wheat. Unlike the native species—perennials that come back year after year—annuals must be planted each spring. With only enough time to grow shallow, wispy roots before harvest, these crops quickly deplete the soil and then require fertilizer to thrive.

Wes Jackson, a visionary plant geneticist and founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has strived for more than 40 years to introduce perennials to agriculture. Lee DeHaan has been his lieutenant in charge of wheat for the last 15 of them, refining a strain of intermediate wheatgrass into a commercially viable crop dubbed Kernza.

From an environmental perspective, Kernza does all the things perennial prairie grasses do. It sends a cloud of roots as deep as 10 feet into the ground, helping build up the nutrients in the soil and hold it in place. And because the ground doesn't need to be plowed and replanted every year, carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) gets buried rather than released into the air, and less soil and nutrients run off the land when it rains.

Kernza, though a little bit grassy, tastes pretty good too. A handful of bakers and chefs are now getting their first chance to test Kernza tortillas, muffins and bread. Last year, Patagonia Provisions began brewing a Kernza beer, cleverly named Long Root Ale. Cascadian Farm, an organic division of General Mills, also recently announced a $500,000 donation to fund Kernza research and promised to buy grain to develop commercial products that use Kernza.

DeHaan's work is not yet done. The Land Institute recently completed a genome map of the Kernza plant, which will let DeHaan improve it more quickly so that it can compete with annual wheat. (To be clear, this is not genetic modification; it helps DeHaan to choose the right crosses, rather than having to grow out every combination in the field.) The goal, he says, is nothing short of a plant that can "produce an abundant yield to meet human food needs, yield a profit for farmers and protect the land and environment."

8. Lindsey Shute, Co-Founder & Executive Director, National Young Farmers Coalition

Lindsey Shute

Supporting Young Farmers

For a long time, it was easier for farmers to get a government loan for $100,000 than for $10,000. The lesser amount—what a beginning farmer needs for, say, a tractor—just wasn't enough for a bank to bother with.

That is, until Lindsey Shute got involved. As executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, she worked with the USDA to create a microlending program to help grow new businesses. It's now a permanent part of the farm bill and has helped more than 27,000 farmers.

Shute has a knack for knowing what young farmers need because she and her husband, Ben, run Hearty Roots Community Farm in Germantown, New York, where they grow vegetables and raise chickens and pigs. What makes her extraordinary is how her years of grassroots organizing—advocating for public transit in New York City—have helped her translate farmers' needs into policy.

Since founding NYFC in 2010, Shute has built an army of young, rural entrepreneurs into a persuasive voice on Capitol Hill. "When members of Congress from rural districts hear young people say they want to be part of this place and to make a difference, they respond," Shute says.

NYFC's top focus is helping young farmers afford land. Over the next 20 years, as much as two-thirds of American farmland will change hands as older farmers die or retire. Shute has worked with 100 land trusts across the country to bring new farmers onto that land. In addition, NYFC was crucial to protecting funding for the farm bill's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which offers practical training to newbies. It has also introduced a bill that would qualify full-time farmers to have their college loans forgiven. "Farming is the highest form of public service—for the environment, providing jobs, and you're also feeding people, by the way," Shute says. She and Ben have personally seen the benefits of her work. With help from the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, they bought their own farmland in 2012.

9. Tim Joseph, Founding Farmer & CEO, Maple Hill Creamery

Tim Joseph

Pushing Beyond Organic Dairy

When Tim Joseph set out in agriculture, he had dreams of producing food sustainably. He started with dairy cows, selling milk into the conventional market. But the prices were volatile and ruinous. He switched to organic, but found the three-year transition and the price of feed financially punishing.

Most new farmers would have given up. But this is where Joseph's story diverges from the classic tale. Rather than give up, he decided, in 2009, to raise cows exclusively on grass and sell their milk (and cream and yogurt) under his own label, Maple Hill Creamery. When demand outstripped his supply, Joseph recruited other struggling upstate New York farmers and helped them to transition their farms to a new kind of production. Eight years later, the brand sustains more than 100 small New York farms.

Joseph had long been a proponent of the environmental benefits of raising cows on grass: the even spread of manure improves soil and reduces erosion. And grass is what cows are meant to eat. But Joseph has proved that grass-fed cattle are good not only for the land, but also for the farmers. The average age of the farmers in Maple Hill's "milkshed" is just 39—far below the national average of 58 and proof that the system brings new farmers to the land. "The thing that makes it all worthwhile is when a farmer or a family member says how this changed their lives," says Joseph. "It's cliché, but it's what makes me proud."

The next step: instead of simply paying farmers for milk, as most companies do, Maple Hill rewards them for better practices, such as managing grazing land and sequestering carbon. "We know there are practices that lead to healthier cows and better land," he says. "We're trying to connect the dots."

Related: How Farming Contributes to Water Pollution

10. Denise Morrison, President & CEO, Campbell Soup Company

Denise Morrison

Making Big Food, Good Food

Big food is bad food, or so the theory goes. But Campbell's CEO, Denise Morrison, is proving that this truism is ever-less true. A veteran of big food manufacturers including Kraft and Nabisco, she took the helm in 2011 and immediately set about transforming Campbell's iconic brand—one that epitomizes the dump-and-stir casserole era—into a behemoth producer of real, healthy food.

To wit: In 2012, she acquired Bolthouse Farms, the king of baby carrots and a leader in fresh juices. The next year, she grabbed Plum Organics, a maker of "clean" baby food, and just this summer, Pacific Foods, which makes organic broth and natural foods. This spring, Morrison told an audience in Boston that one of the three big changes she supports in the food system, is "limitless local": a move from "big, slow and removed to small, safe, agile and regionally connected" suppliers.

Of course, this could all be chalked up to smart business. What elevates Morrison to hero status are her bold moves on GMO labeling. Where most big food companies banded together to fight a national labeling policy, Morrison, alone, came out in favor of it. (Many others soon followed suit when they saw consumers' positive response.) What's more, when Congress finally passed a law that permitted companies to only disclose genetic modification on scannable QR codes, Campbell's decided to proceed with its plan to label every product that contains GMOs on its package within 12 to 18 months. This, even though some three-quarters of the company's products contain GM ingredients. What if shoppers shunned Campbell's in favor of brands using GMOs but not saying so? It was, Morrison believed, a risk worth taking. "We've always believed consumers have a right to know what's in their food," she's said. We agree.

Food Heroes logo by Kelli Anderson
Photography (8): Bill Wadman
Ron Shaich photo by Boston Globe/Contributor/Getty Images
Denise Morrison photo by Bill Cramer/The Forbes Collection/Getty Images

Related: Watch: A Farmer Explains What GMOs Are