Day 1, Friday, March 10, 2017
Keynote by Senator Cory Booker: His message to get to work, focus and share the love was of course inspiring. I thought the huge ballroom would be packed and it was mostly full, but not packed so that was a little discouraging. Senator Booker did mention food in his speech. He made reference to the critical task of fixing our “broken food system”. Although I don’t personally describe our food system as “broken” (it works perfectly well for those it was built to benefit), it certainly is a good thing when the work of improving food systems is mentioned by a national figure. I’m personally pleased that the term “food system” is entering mainstream language and I think that’s a big win for farmers and ranchers and farm/food advocates across our country. View Senator Booker’s SXSW speech here.
Richard Garriott gave a short talk to announce his new book Explore/Create. Garriott loves many things and has a focus and perseverance that I think is quite rare among tech people. He also demonstrates a keen awareness that most people don't have loads of money. He talked about his famous trip to space and also explained that the price is coming down - OK, so it's still a lot more than a bus ride across town... but it's moving down! My take away from his talk was akin to the philosophy of Ben Franklin - approach every new project with what Franklin called "a beginner's mind". Be open, explore.. create. [As an aside, Garriott was very, very supportive when I was helping start Austin Free-Net back in 1995 - in part due to his support, Austin Free-Net today continues to support access to technology and training for all people in Austin].
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy was the highlight of my day and the session where I began to see direct links to our food system economics work. Dr. Murthy spoke with such ease and clarity about what he sees as a major healthcare issue for Americans – “an epidemic of chronic stress”. He talked of the many causes even beyond those we might expect: job, money, family, traffic. He said that even once those basic needs are met, the data show that Americans feel isolated and lonely. The impact of stress is huge on our health and is a primary driver behind poor health and chronic disease. I didn’t know that chronic stress contributes to inflammation, which is something that affects many people I know.
Dr. Murthy spoke directly to the emotional pain that afflicts so many Americans. Even with social media tech we are feeling more isolated than ever – and feeling isolated is a huge contributor to chronic stress. What to do about isolation? Connections matter and according to Dr. Murthy, it’s the quality of the connections that matters most. The highest quality connections are those that are mutually beneficial. [TCLF Question #1: How can we create high quality, mutually beneficial connections between people to the farmers/ranchers who grow their food?]
My big “ah-hah moment” came when Dr. Murthy shared a study on the benefits of contemplative practices, the “ACES study”. Students were taught mindfulness practices and while they mocked them at first, after only 2 weeks of twice daily meditation, the teachers found the hallways quieter and after 1 year the suspension rate dropped by 45% and after 2 years by 95%; teacher absence rates plummeted and students grades came up.
So add contemplative practices to the list of good health drivers, in addition to healthy food, good sleep, physical activity, and quality social connection.
At the Texas Center for Local Food we work closely with the Elgin school district to increase the consumption of healthy foods and we are part of a central Texas group to improve general access to healthy food. This session gave me a clearer sense of how our work dovetails and complements other work by Elgin and other school districts to improve overall student and family wellness.