At the Table with TPW: Investing to Improve the Food System

Catherine Parker
Program Coordinator
The Philanthropy Workshop

Earlier this month, a dozen philanthropists walked through the largest urban farmers market in the nation at Union Square to hear from farmers and growers, stopping to sample fresh horseradish and strawberries along the way. They met the dairy farmer, who specializes in delivering the cream-line (rather than the bottomline), and the restaurant purveyor, a darling of the Manhattan Michelin star scene, whose fingerling potatoes promote biodiversity and build soil quality—worth far more in weight than the Yukon Gold, a common, industrialized variety.

The philanthropists were in New York City as part of The Philanthropy Workshop’s Immersion Journey: FOOD, a three-day deep dive on investing to improve the food system.  Participants heard from twenty-five speakers and organizations about different tools and approaches to improve the food system for lasting change while savoring local, seasonal and sustainably sourced foods at restaurants, schools, and markets around the city where community members are educating young minds, and working to make healthy, sustainably sourced food accessible and affordable for all.

TPW’s Tracy Mack Parker kicked off the week by asking participants to introduce themselves and share a first food memory. One participant recounted growing up with an immigrant grandmother who cooked in the old ways and a mother who opted for the microwave instead; another of impressing a potential beau with duck à l’orange; a third a dreaded annual terrapin stew served at a table laden with china.  My own food journey, characterized by a serious predilection for green, began at the age of five when I grew okra—my favorite food because my grandmother served it fried on a long picnic table on a screened porch when we went to visit her every summer.

This act of coming to the table—whether to listen, to chop tomatoes for salsa, or to share a meal—was to remain a constant throughout our time together in New York.

Our first day focused on building sustainable local and regional food systems. We heard from Kathleen Frith, president of Glynwood, a non-profit farm that builds the business capacity and ecological sustainability of Hudson Valley farmers, increasing the environmental and economic health of rural communities.  We also heard from chef Michel Nischan, one of the nation’s leading local and sustainable foods advocates. Spurred by the onset of Type 1 diabetes in his child, he was inspired to bring healthy foods onto the plates of all Americans, helping to pioneer fruit and vegetable prescriptions and the expansion of a national nutrition incentive network, which makes it possible for low-income families to access healthy foods using their federal food benefits.

Delving into government and policy-based approaches, former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan discussed her work to change the FDA food recommendations from a grain-based pyramid to a round and more scientifically sound plate; and we heard from Food Policy Action about their research-based approach to positioning food as a key issue for voters and lawmakers. 

With business driving change in the space, we examined market-based approaches— from Chipotle’s leadership in transforming the definition of fast food to include fresh, sustainably sourced ingredients to impact investing opportunities that deploy capital in the ‘good food’ supply chain.

Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, challenged our group to remember that in order to forward a food movement of any merit, we all need to feel welcome at the table—farm workers, food service workers, and those members of society who are often excluded from the outer edge of the supermarket due to systemic inequality. This begins with and ends with questioning not just what’s on our plates—those of us who as children were once picky eaters and have since become discerning, well-informed, ethically-minded consumers—but rather asking what we can do to ensure there is enough of the good stuff to go around for everybody. I was lucky to try okra at a young age; it will be progress when we all have the opportunity to do so.

This requires—whether we choose to take a community-, market-, government-based or mixed approach—the simple act of imagining and investing in the future. Changing the food system to affect climate change, the environment, human rights, and public health outcomes requires a radical mindfulness that challenges our consumer habits and menu selections, as well as a willingness to set new places at the table.

Overall, the highlight of TPW Immersion Journey Food was learning more about what our members are already doing to impact the food system. I’m excited to see what they’ll bring to the table in years to come, as the growing season is only beginning.


Catherine Parker was a Program Coordinator at The Philanthropy Workshop. For more information, follow Twitter @TPWgivebetter or visit

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