Aspen Times Weekly: Big Aspen Ideas |

Aspen Times Weekly: Big Aspen Ideas


THE BUFFET stretched the length of at least three folding tables: big bowls, platters, and warming pans heaped with a colorful array of hearty grains, leafy salads and slaws, roasted vegetables, and sliced local beef and fish. But this meal, served at the Aspen Meadows Doerr-Hosier Center during the annual Aspen Ideas Festival, was slightly different from a standard spread. Clues were found in a few choice words on place cards identifying each dish: Wild Cress and Bruised Green Apple Salad; Greek Salad with Leftover Bagel Chips, Tomato, Cucumber, and Feta; Colorado Hybrid Striped Bass with Scrap Roots, Shoots, Stalks, and Broken-Tomato Vinaigrette.

Despite these traditionally unsavory adjectives, more than 250 diners dug into the Imperfect Foods Buffet — made from ingredients “that would have been normally discarded due to visual imperfections or simply products in low demand.” Plates were piled high with this nutritious, creative fare, created using donations from Roaring Fork Valley purveyors and items repurposed from the venue’s catering kitchen.

The luncheon was a fitting case study to preface a noontime talk, Wasting Away: Why the Single Most Important Food Decision You Make May Be What You Don’t Eat. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted at the retail and consumer level — a fact I couldn’t help but shake my head at while dipping a spoon into a decadent white chocolate-raspberry bread pudding prepared from stale breakfast croissants. What’s more, experts suggest that the amount of food waste globally could feed 3 billion people. A widespread campaign to enact change is currently underway, and it applies recycling tenets — reduce, reuse, recycle — to food scraps: composting.

Few things in this world are as important as food, which — along with politics, sex, and economics — filled the bulk of this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival. For the first time, food was a topic that crossed over from the three-day Spotlight on Health track, which focuses on personal wellness and nutrition (The Future of Food: The Hype, Our Health), into the first half of the weeklong festival proper, where issues take more of a global approach from a cultural perspective (The Future of Food: Our Planet, Our Plates).

“The explosion of plant-based diets is good for the environment, good for animals, and good for health.”—Jeff Dunn, president of Campbell Fresh and former head of Bolthouse Farms

“It’s such an important topic worldwide,” says Killeen Brettmann, managing director of Public Programs and Aspen Ideas Festival. “Our consumers are focused on eating healthier. Between obesity and food safety, we thought it was so important that it was worth discussing throughout the whole festival.”

Herewith, other Big Ideas in Food as presented last week:

BIG IDEA: Consumer composting can help fix the food waste epidemic

World hunger is at an all-time high — 50 million people in the U.S. alone are food insecure — and landfills are becoming clogged with food scraps that should be composted to help replenish soils. This juxtaposition of need, surplus, and egregious waste ties back to our food service industry and home kitchens, where seeing the amount of food scraps pile up each week is the first step to believing in the problem. San Francisco is leading the charge with a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance, and other cities aim to follow. The good news: The White House has committed to reducing national food waste by 50 percent by 2030 and the Food Recovery Act is picking up speed at an unprecedented pace.

Change in what society deems acceptable is on the horizon. “Now it feels really weird to litter,” says UK food waste campaigner and Feeding the 5,000 founder Tristam Stuart. “That’s our aspiration for this work: How can we make it seem bizarre and unacceptable to waste the amount of food that we do today?”

Begin mindfulness by keeping fruit and vegetable scraps out of

the trash.

BIG IDEA: More protein is coming from plants (and bugs)

Animal protein is a building block of the American diet — and for thousands of years, humans have relied on animals to turn plants into meat. Now the sustainable food movement that bred grass-fed beef and free-range chicken is taking a giant leap: cutting meat out of the equation in favor of new plant-based foods marketed to the masses. Patrick Brown of Impossible Foods and Ethan Brown of Beyond Meat — both working on meatless burgers — are not anti-meat. Rather, they are architects of healthful alternatives that seek to mitigate the climate-disrupting effects of modern meat production. That’s what drove former climate scientist Adam Lowry to create Ripple, a pea-based rival to almond milk (which tastes nothing like peas, thankfully) that boasts eight grams of protein (versus almond milk’s one) and reduces strain on the drought-plagued nut industry. Demand exists: When Beyond Meat launched at Whole Foods Markets in Boulder, Colo., last week, the store’s three-week inventory sold out in a single day. Insects as cheap protein sources are gaining traction, too. Quips Brettman: “I ate a cricket brownie and it wasn’t too bad!”

BIG IDEA: The brain battles our efforts to eat healthfully

Diets don’t work — everybody knows that. But most compelling from What is Healthy Eating and Why Does the Brain Resist It? was equally sigh-worthy: the brain can and will sabotage the most determined efforts toward willpower. Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, author of “Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession With Weight Loss,” told it straight: brain regions that control obsession and reward will do their damndest to maintain body weight within a predetermined 10-15-pound range by boosting hunger, enhancing satisfaction from less healthful foods, and screwing metabolism. Future attempts at svelteness, prepare for derailment.

BIG IDEA: Small producers with high prices are not elitist — they’re unlucky

Wendy Mitchell of Avalanche Cheese Company, who spoke on panels regarding food waste and protein’s new wave, points out that small companies like hers endure the same regulations as giant corporations. “Our testing fees are 2 percent of our revenues — Nestlé’s is a fraction of that because they’re so big. That price is passed onto consumer. Our prices are higher. This is creating elitism of locally sourced food out of necessity to make a living, not necessarily price-gouging.” Remember this truism when you shop locally, and understand that you vote for higher food safety standards, sustainable practices, and humane working conditions with your wallet.

BIG IDEA: Consumers must be food advocates to

instill change

Many discussions made the point: The only way to know what goes into food is to ask, companies are changing products and policies according to consumer demand for transparency, and folks must be willing to be a part of the process to influence government regulations. Fact: FDA labels are confusing and overwhelming…but change is nigh. Until then, get educated on what the terms — “certified-organic,” “animal welfare” “low sodium, “good source of,” “best by,” and, soon, GMO—really mean (starting with “natural,” which is bunk). Start by watching the festival clip, Read It and Eat It: Decoding Food Labels (

BIG IDEA: Organic does not equal sustainable

As Jason Smith of Rock Bottom Ranch noted in the talk, Can Sustainable Food Production Scale?: Buying organic strawberries grown in South America is less sustainable than buying conventional strawberries grown at a local family farm. His discussion with geneticist Stephen Jones and Union of Concerned Scientists director Ricardo Salvador explored how food from both conventional agriculture operations and small family farms can become more healthful, green, fair, and affordable en route to feeding a hungry planet. Since eighty percent of organic farming happens outside of the U.S., and because current domestic demand for organic foods far outweighs supply, the smartest solution is to expand U.S. organic production. Only 10 million acres of 334 arable acres in the U.S. are organic, according to Salvador. Adding just 13 million acres of organic crops, he says, could create an estimated 189,000 farming jobs and funnel $11.5 billion directly to farmers.

BIG IDEA: Our food system ain’t broke (we just need a new system)

“It is doing exactly what it was designed to do,” says Navina Khanna, executive director of the HEAL Food Alliance. “If you look back at history, the system benefits a few, not everyone. It’s based on forced migration, forced labor, stolen land, and that continues today.” Food system jobs comprise 20 million people — and account for 5 of 8 of the lowest paying jobs in our country. “Putting profit over people is not sustainable,” she adds.

Notes director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Ricardo Salvator while discussing sustainable food production: “The food supply is not a philanthropy. The food supply feeds those who can afford to buy its products.”

Bright skies ahead: polls indicate that 80 percent of consumers will pledge to pay more for fairness.

BIG IDEA: “Food computers” are the future of farming

In his fast-talking, fiercely engaging presentation on futuristic farming, founder and lead researcher of the MIT CityFARM Lab Caleb Harper detailed how open-source projects collect data to create “recipes” that create and replicate crops in climate-controlled, soil-free, urban farms. Technology and code interacts with research and biology to create efficient, high-yield systems, such as at Toshiba Lettuce, the Japanese facility filling former floppy disk warehouses. (Soon MIT will launch “Personal Food Computer” kits, currently tested in select grade schools.) Harper’s vision: one billion new “digital farmers” and every rooftop in every major city topped with gardens.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Aspen and Snowmass Village make the Aspen Times’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.