4 Food and Agriculture Projects Tackling Climate Change, Employment, Biodiversity, and More
These Global Vision Awards honorees want to change our choices in the kitchen.
The Travel + Leisure Global Vision Awards aim to identify and honor companies, individuals, destinations, and organizations taking strides to develop more sustainable and responsible travel products, practices, and experiences. Not only are they demonstrating thought leadership and creative problem-solving, they are taking actionable, quantifiable steps to protect communities and environments around the world. What's more, they are inspiring their industry colleagues and travelers to do their part.
For those looking to incorporate climate-consciousness into their daily decision making, food is a great place to start. It's not just that we have to eat...well, multiple times a day, every day. The transnational systems that shape grocery aisles in the U.S. and beyond (agribusiness, cattle ranching, international shipping) often destabilize land, disrupt local food systems and sovereignty, and result in massive carbon emissions. And it goes beyond how we shop and what we cook for ourselves. The restaurant industry, too, has its own deep flaws — systemic issues made all the more clear during the COVID-19 pandemic — leading to increased calls for more accessible, safe, stable work environments. This year, we're thinking a lot more about those who make our food and where it comes from. So are these four Global Vision Awards honorees: a snack company, a nonprofit, and two farms that are reimagining what agriculture can and should look like. — T+L Editors
A frequent traveler in pre-pandemic times, Courtney Boyd Myers was eternally frustrated at the relative lack of healthy, plant-based snacks she could take on the road. So with Matthew Lebo, she co-founded Akua, which creates sustainable snacks out of one of the world's few zero-input crops: kelp. The company's primary product is a jerky, made from sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima) and mushrooms, that's high in fiber, vitamins B1 and B2, iron, and magnesium. For Akua, sustainability means both positive environmental and social impact. In addition to being nutritious for consumers, the sugar kelp stores carbon, filters nitrogen, and can provide temporary habitat for fish. Akua's supply is raised in Maine by Summit Point Seafood, an all-woman cooperative that provides jobs for women in recovery. Planting happens in November, harvest in May. "That's the opposite of lobster season," explains Boyd Myers, "so it provides a really big employment benefit in Maine." Akua, which also makes a kelp "pasta," is now testing a kelp burger. Boyd Myers describes the texture as somewhere in between a beef burger and a typical veggie burger, "but we're not trying to make fake food," she says. "Most plant-based meat substitutes are really processed. This is just kelp and mushroom." It's proof that sometimes, less really is more.
The LEE Initiative
Women are vastly underrepresented in professional kitchens in the U.S., holding less than 23 percent of chef and head cook positions. So three years ago, chef Edward Lee and restaurant-industry veteran Lindsey Ofcacek started the Let's Empower Employment (LEE) Initiative as a mentoring program for women chefs — and to address broader issues of equity and diversity in their profession. They were just about to launch their third mentoring group last March when COVID-19 hit. The organization quickly pivoted, helping transform 19 restaurants across the U.S., including Olmsted, in Brooklyn, and Lee's own 610 Magnolia, in Louisville, Kentucky, into relief kitchens providing meals for restaurant-industry workers. They also launched a program for small family farms, advancing them $1 million to help sustain their businesses. This wasn't mission creep. As Lee says, "It's all about helping people in the restaurant industry. It's always tied to empowerment and jobs." Now, as the industry seeks to rebuild, "we need change," Ofcacek says. "More equality, more sustainable food systems. Let's do it right."
Around the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. DuBois visited Dougherty County, in southwestern Georgia, to study the lives of the Black people who lived and farmed there. This was cotton-growing country, dotted with plantations and rich with fertile soils that had been tended by generations of enslaved people and their descendants. "How curious a land is this," DuBois wrote afterward in The Souls of Black Folk, "how full of untold story, of tragedy and laughter, and the rich legacy of human life; shadowed with a tragic past, and big with future promise!" More than a century later in 2011, a not-for-profit called the New Communities Land Trust, using damages awarded from a federal discrimination lawsuit, bought one of the most significant plantations in the county, Cypress Pond: a 1,638-acre spread that had been owned by one of Georgia's richest enslavers. Today, that plantation is called Resora, and it is devoted to activities that seek to restore and heal. Cottages on the estate as well as the antebellum mansion were turned into a retreat center and event space set amidst regal cypress trees and placid ponds. During COVID-19, rentals have been put on hold, but the farm is still going strong, and the land still offers its bounty in the form of pecans, satsumas, and muscadine grapes. The New Communities Land Trust is planning new initiatives to empower locals, including agricultural training and business development — all part of a collective effort to live out the future promise of which DuBois once wrote.
Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project
Every variety grown by the Tehachapi Heritage Grain Project carries a story: Sonora wheat, soft and versatile, landed in Mexico with a 16th-century Spanish priest. Red Fife wheat, hearty and robust, is named for Canadian farmer Dave Fife, who began growing it in Ontario in 1842. Oaxacan Green corn has been cultivated by the Zapotec people since time immemorial. All have converged at a farm 100 miles north of Los Angeles, where Andy Weiser and Sherry Mandell produce heirloom grains — beloved by celebrated chefs, including master noodle maker Sonoko Sakai; restaurants such as Gjelina, in L.A.'s Venice neighborhood; and those who regularly buy up all that they have to offer at local farmers' markets. Rich flavor is one reward, preservation of agricultural heritage another. A third: environmental health, in a state where agriculture has often damaged the land instead of nourishing it. "These varietals have beautiful root systems that naturally sequester carbon and help keep water in the soil, and in California, water is a luxury," Mandell says. "We're creating healthy, loamy soil—and a really beautiful product."