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FoodCon 2020: Opportunities and Challenges in the Sustainable Food Industry

by Rachel Haynes, BSC Associate & Jenkins MBA Candidate

On January 23rd, I had the opportunity to attend FoodCon 2020, an annual conference co-hosted by the business schools of NC State, UNC Chapel Hill, and Duke University, that celebrates the food and agri-business community. The goal of FoodCon is to bring together a diverse audience of students, community members, and business professionals to bring awareness and understanding of the opportunities and challenges within the sustainable food industry in North Carolina and in our nation.

This year the NC State Net Impact chapters had the honor of hosting the 6th annual conference at Talley Student Union. Having grown up in an urban community, I never questioned where my food comes, or how what I eat impacts other people or the environment. FoodCon changed my perspective on the current state of the farm industry, new sustainable food practices, and my impact on our food system.

The conference featured panel topics such sustainable beverages, entrepreneurship in ag-tech, culture around farming practices, alternative proteins, and B Corps. The morning keynote was delivered by NC State’s director of Executive Farm Management Program, Michelle L. Grainger as well as Pan African Food Entrepreneur and founder of esSense, Yorm Ackuaku. Michelle grounded the audience in the history of NC State’s unique and highly ranked Farm Management program, and Yorm walked us through her journey as a food entrepreneur and advocate for African farmers economic empowerment through food innovation. Both morning keynote complimented each other and was a fantastic way to start our food system conversations.

After an encouraging keynote, FoodCon attendees moved into some dynamic and meaningful panels. One panel I found to be insightful was the Culture of Food which brought together representatives from organizations such as Happy Dirt, FoodBuy, Tierra Negra Farm, and NC Field. In this panel we heard first hand from local North Carolina farmers and activists, how the culture and system of farming is broken and how we as community member can better support small local farmers. 

The sustainable future of proteins provided another interesting and engaging perspective. This panel featured representatives from Ingles Market, North Carolina’s Food Innovation Lab, Duke Molecular Physiology Institute, and NC Farm Families. Topics such as how to consumers, scientists, academics, and business define a protein was a much debated topic. Overall, it was largely agreed upon that with a growing future population, it is important that we start to incorporate plant based proteins in addition to animal based proteins into the human diet.

The conference ended with an inspiring keynote talk from CEO of Happy Dirt Sandi Kronick. She largely discussed her career journey as a female entrepreneur in the farming industry and how she plans to make a positive social impact on the community through her company. As I enjoyed a delicious scoop of Howling Cow ice cream my fellow BSC associate Hannah Stone had this take away from the conference: 

“If I was able to say anything to others about FoodCon, I would want people to understand how amazing and encouraging it was to see so many people from various industries come together for a conference highlighting the sustainable practices and mindsets gaining traction in our food and beverage industries. I think it was really insightful to hear new thoughts and perspectives on this evolving industry, and to see and hear people who care about food and the lasting effect they have on the world was really uplifting.”

Next time you sit down to eat, take a moment to think about how the food on your plate got to your table and the stories and experiences of the people that grow and raise the food we eat. Make sure you don’t miss FoodCon 2021 hosted at UNC Chapel Hill next Spring!