Lawrence resident, journalist to address James Beard Foundation on importance of trusting food sources

Do you trust your food?

What that means and how to improve it are questions Lawrence resident Simran Sethi, an environmental journalist and former Kansas University associate professor, plans to address as a guest speaker at this week’s James Beard Foundation Food Conference in New York City.

Simran Sethi

Watch live

Video from the James Beard Foundation Food Conference will be live-streamed Wednesday and Thursday online at Simran Sethi is scheduled to speak on Wednesday.

The third-annual conference, “A Crisis in Confidence: Creating a Better, More Sustainable Food World We Can Trust,” is expected to draw chefs and other food-system stakeholders from across the United States.

“Underlying America’s growing conversation about and fascination with food is the notion of trust,” foundation executive vice president Mitchell Davis said in a news release. “So much effort goes into ensuring that healthy, wholesome, nutritious food gets to as many people as possible, but every E. coli outbreak or environmental accident chips away at consumer faith in our food system. What’s more, where people place their trust — in large corporations, in small local producers, in third-party certification, in government regulation — is always changing in our increasingly global world.”

Sethi, whose work focuses primarily on sustainability and environmentalism, said she hopes to break down the abstract concept of trust in the food system in a way people can relate to.

In many ways, she said, the scale of the food system has contributed to people’s mistrust of it.

“It’s too big for us as individuals, psychologically, to comprehend,” she said. “This idea of trusting monolithic agencies is very hard for people to understand.”

Sethi argues that’s for good reason. For example, she said, she once noticed that a single-serving packet of honey she picked up at a Lawrence restaurant contained products from multiple countries, including Canada and China.

Especially when a problem — such as E. coli — arises in the food system, that kind of globalism makes it difficult to trace the source of the problem quickly.

“That’s a really compelling reason to shop locally,” Sethi said.

From a business perspective, locally grown food helps keep money in the local economy and also reduces the need for food to travel long distances, she said.

For consumers, Sethi suggested first deciding how you define trust. If you only trust food that hasn’t been treated with pesticides, look for certified organic products. If you want to know where your food came from, find grocery stores that indicate the product’s source or farmers markets where you can ask the vendor in persion. Sethi praised restaurants that share where they get their food — a locally grown tomato garnish, for example, is good, but it’s better if they can also tell you where they purchased the main-dish meat.

Efforts such as Our Local Food — a regional network of farms, markets, businesses and consumers — have helped Lawrence make “great strides” toward increasing trust in the food system, Sethi said.

“We really see a lot more people coming in from other places to attend our farmers markets, and there’s a great emphasis on local food in our restaurants,” she said. “I suspect that it will only get bigger from here.”

The James Beard Foundation’s mission is celebrating and preserving America’s diverse culinary heritage and future. In addition to its culinary events and initiatives, the organization bestows annual awards to chefs and other leaders in the food industry.

Sethi, whose New York presentation is scheduled for Wednesday, said she was excited to share thoughts on sustainability with restaurateurs.

“I’ve talked so much about food, but I’ve rarely had the opportunity to speak with the people who are influences around food,” she said. “For me, the most exciting audience participants are chefs.”

Sethi has appeared on numerous national television news and talk shows and taught a number of courses at KU, including multimedia reporting, diversity in the media and environmental journalism. She chose not to return to academia this semester because she missed “being out in the world, meeting people and telling their stories,” she said in an interview for the Beard Foundation.

Sethi said she’s currently focusing on research for a book about seeds and their importance as the foundation for our food system.

— Features reporter Sara Shepherd can be reached at 832-7187. Follow her at