Grace Before Dinner: The Future of Food

In May 2011, an extraordinary range of experts and advocates gathered at Georgetown University to discuss the future of food. Journalist Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and a prominent critic of industrial agriculture, gave the opening remarks. Among other panelists and speakers that day were CEOs of organic food companies; the senior technology officer from General Mills; the president of The Land Institute; FDA’s deputy commissioner for food; the outreach director for the National Farm to School Network; a vice-president from the Grocery Manufacturers Association; food writers and editors; Senator Jon Tester (D-MT); poet and farmer Wendell Berry; restaurant owners; environmental academics; and Sam Kass, the White House chef. Prince Charles, fresh off the international feeding frenzy surrounding his son’s royal wedding, gave the 40-minute keynote address, sounding an alarm on the depletion of the earth’s soils and the overtaxing of its water, on what has become an untenable global food system at the mercy of the unstable price of oil. Then he laid out a coherent alternative vision for the future.

The Washington Post, the main sponsor of the conference, gave the event prominence in its paper and on its web site, and its name was attached to the flurry of national media attention that followed. Less prominent was the behind-the-scenes co-sponsor, the GRACE Communications Foundation. GRACE, a philanthropic foundation dedicated to raising public awareness of the relationship between food, water, and energy systems, provided support for the conference with its savvy media and communications expertise.

Among those attending the conference was Laurie David, an environmentalist and author who had been so motivated by a slide show on climate change by Al Gore that she’d approached Gore afterward, and ultimately produced the award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. At Georgetown, she was similarly moved by the Prince of Wales—and ended up finding a publisher willing to spread the message to a wider audience through a slim, elegant book called The Prince’s Speech: On the Future of Food. Partnering with Laurie David and Rodale (and creating the web site and media support), GRACE Communications helped lead the effort to market and promote the book’s important messages.

GRACE’s executive director Scott Cullen ’97, a lifelong surfer who caught a particular brand of “all-in” mindset while a student at Vermont Law School, plays a key role in scores of similar collaborations for GRACE. He’s responsible for initiating and cultivating relationships throughout the nonprofit, corporate, and public-sector worlds, especially in arenas where philanthropy and public policy touch the overlapping spheres of food, water, and energy. Precisely because the seemingly intractable problems of a healthy environment are complex and interrelated, Cullen’s extensive network and knowledge of the issues have positioned him to recognize potential synergies, leverage points, and unexpected matches that aren’t obvious on their face. He knows how to read the waves. He has a talent for making an ambitious idea seem possible, and mobilizing people behind it—and then providing the programming or financial support (often both) to help them put the idea into action. In that way, GRACE is unusual in the world of foundations. “We connect to movements in a way that is more impactful than traditional philanthropy,” he says.

“What gets cultivated at Vermont Law School is the idea of taking risks—to do what you think is right even if it’s hard.”

Cullen credits part of his approach to the experience he had at a different kind of law school. A long-haired free spirit as a student, Cullen routinely grabbed time to hike up to Kent’s Ledge or get in a few snowboard runs between classes. He valued the direct contact with nature that grounded the concepts he was learning in the classroom. His professors and fellow students didn’t mind the sweaty, or muddy, or sometimes barefoot student who dashed in just as class was starting up—they valued intelligence and opinions more than appearance. He felt surrounded by expertise and passion, by people who looked past convention and acted according to their ideals. “What gets cultivated at Vermont Law School,” he says, “is the idea of taking risks—to do what you think is right even if it’s hard. I learned that from so many professors who had taken on Goliaths and won, who knew what it was like to be outgunned and under-resourced and have nothing but their creativity and intellect and nuanced understanding of the law.”

In his first job out of law school, Cullen had the opportunity to work for a start-up nonprofit. He wrote the incorporation papers, set up the accounting system, hired staff. “It was all new to me and incredibly challenging,” he recalls, “but VLS had given me the confidence and thought process, the critical thinking part that is broadly applicable to so many things. I wasn’t daunted.” He made a name for himself working on coastal and marine conservation issues with The Nature Conservancy, and helped a local advocacy group near his home on Long Island permanently close the Department of Energy’s leaking nuclear reactor at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The GRACE Foundation became aware of the grassroots effort to shut down the Brookhaven reactor—and noticed Cullen’s effectiveness. The foundation hired him as an informal policy advisor, then brought him on staff as a senior policy advisor, then promoted him to executive director. In addition to his position at GRACE, Cullen serves as a director on the boards of the Environmental Grantmakers Association and the Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders Network, and is a member of Vermont Law School’s Environmental Advisory Board.

Cullen’s deep knowledge of philanthropic organizations and individual donors puts him in a unique position to identify trends and opportunities. To pick just one example: he’s getting to know donors who are growing impatient with the federal government’s slow response to climate change—and who might be encouraged to see a faster payback in supporting initiatives involving agriculture, a huge sector for carbon emissions. While he’s busy making those connections, GRACE is helping articulate messaging and sharpening the speaking points for nonprofits working on sustainable agriculture, to make sure they’re making a consistent, compelling connection between their work and the changing climate. In this and dozens of other ways behind the scenes, GRACE Communications Foundation is doing more than playing matchmaker (often with matching funds); it’s seeding wide swaths of an entire movement, and setting an agenda.

At the same time, GRACE continues to build on its history of innovative public outreach and education campaigns, sometimes under its own name, sometimes anonymously, and often under the names of partners. GRACE is behind the award-winning animation “The Meatrix,” a kid-friendly series about factory farming styled loosely on The Matrix. It’s helped create web-based initiatives including the Ecocentric blog, the Eat Well Guide, and the Sustainable Table. It provides a user-friendly online calculator for estimating your water footprint. Downloadable curriculum materials for grades K-4. Videos. White papers. Accessible resources. All with public education in mind.

One particularly successful partnership has been a disarmingly simple campaign called “Meatless Mondays”— a catchy initiative to get Americans to eat a little less meat. Over the past several years the idea has flowed into the mainstream. Meatless Mondays have been endorsed by Paul McCartney and celebrity chef Mario Batali; they’ve been institutionalized in Oprah Winfrey’s cafeteria, in Toyota’s U.S. plants, and in countless restaurants and high schools and family dining rooms across the country. Cullen doesn’t have to point it out, but the ripple effect is implied: not only the thousands of meals consumed each week that no longer contain meat—but the thousands and tens of thousands of minutes spent in conversation about the merits of the issue in the offices and committees and kitchens, and in the weekly conversations of the those who are reminded every time they sit down to eat on Monday.

Setting the table for a new, more sustainable kind of agriculture is just one side of the equation. The other part is getting people to come to the healthier table, and eat.

GRACE is working both sides of the table, and making a difference.

Amen to that.