Kurt Beecher Dammeier joined the food community in 1999 by forming Sugar Mountain, a family of food businesses including Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle and New York City. In 2006, Kurt launched the Pure Food Kids Foundation, funded by the ongoing donation of 1% of all sales from Sugar Mountain companies. Kurt is now launching a series of food system change initiatives focusing on adult nutrition education, labeling transparency, and school food.
What’s one thing anyone can do to help the good food movement?
Consider every dollar a vote. In this era of big data, every dollar you spend is a vote and a vote that counts. Each purchase we make is tracked by the manufacturer and the retail purveyor, and each of those “votes” helps define and create our future food system. The standard commercial food system is parsing that data very finely and we’ve already started to see that system respond to changes in demand. Every time you buy a Gatorade, you just voted to have more of that. Every time you didn’t, you vote to eliminate those products.
What inspired you to get involved in the good food movement?
I am personally like a canary in the coal mine for many food advocates. For example, I used to be a smoker. I finally quit when I realized that there was a room of old white dudes in North Carolina who were intentionally killing me for their own profit. There are parallels in our food system.
Way back in the 1980’s I started down a path to equate our conventional food system with the cigarette business. There are rooms full of corporate people who know exactly what they are doing. They are trying to manipulate processed food to addict us for their own profit. They know that with overly processed, additive laden, heavily sugared products, they are selling us a slow death. But, they are also driving high corporate profit. Just like the cigarette companies did.
I grew up at a time when it was virtually unthinkable that big companies – and with the support of our government – would give us anything to eat that was bad for us. The good news is that it’s not unthinkable any longer – and there is so much more fertile ground for the message of pure food.
You’ve built several successful food businesses including Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, all using pure food principles and practices. You also started the Pure Food Foundation that introduces elementary school students to food awareness, label myths and the impact of their own food choices. Why focus on fourth and fifth graders?
Our cheese shops and restaurants (and my cookbook) help adults remove additives from their diets by changing the way they shop, cook and eat. However, my real passion is teaching these lessons to kids.
I absolutely believe that when we started in middle schools over a decade ago that our pure food message was viewed as pure wackiness. Today, the lessons in our kids workshops are much more mainstream. There is an acceptance today that the increased use of additives by the industrial food system is correlated with major health issues in our country. Ten years ago this was a message that seemed new. It was not easy to get teachers and school principals to even give the workshop in the beginning.
Today, we have a rich impact in schools. There is still work to do, however. While the knowledge in the wealthier school districts is pretty high, we see significant gaps split on geographic and socio-economic lines. We used to see a universal lack of knowledge. Now we see pockets of knowledge – and the lower income schools have not advanced. It’s almost more important now because it’s become a have/have not situation in our country.
The Pure Food Challenge is presented as part of the Kids Workshop is given at more than 350 schools around Seattle and New York City each year, and has reached more than 90,000 students since the inception of the program. Here’s a bit from one of the teacher guides:
The Pure Food Challenge is an opportunity for you and your students to continue putting your food detective skills to work after participating in our workshop (or starting by participating in our workshop!) By taking the Pure Food Challenge we hope you can create a healthy classroom environment where your students are excited to learn more about food and encouraged to ask questions about what they eat. Additionally, many of our challenges comply with WA state requirements for 4th and 5th grade health and fitness learning standards.
Food deserts get a lot of conversation space – in the general and food media and among those in the movement. Is it helping?
You can’t solve a food desert by adding a Whole Foods store to the neighborhood. It’s a desert because there is not enough demand. The key is to educate the people who live there. We need to learn how to cook, how to prioritize cooking and healthy eating and understand the impact of diet on healthcare issues.
Kids teach us this approach will work through their response to school lunch programs. Supply side changes are worthless, and not nearly as effective as demand side changes. If you try to introduce healthier options into a grade school, but have not educated those kids about healthier foods, they won’t buy it. Look at the way schools endorse poor eating. Take a look at what’s available at the local high school football game concession stand. If the school sells that crap, then the kids think it’s okay to eat it. I feel the same about soda taxes. Legislating the change we need is not nearly as effective as revealing the harms and risks and benefits of healthier food. While families have responsibility here, and so do the schools. School food programs have responsibility beyond providing government nutritional mandates at the lowest cost.
We’ve found that 4th and 5th graders are amazing change agents in their families. We show them how to read labels, to pay attention to how they feel after they eat sugary snacks and we educate them on where food comes from. They go right home and influence what the family buys. They will also influence what the schools sell.
One of your commitments is to the education of your customers about the benefits of pure, wholesome food. Why do you see this as an important piece of changing the way American eats?
The commitment goes beyond the business. It’s good business because we serve people who are or who think like Millennials… they take the time and care to know who their purveyors are, and what goes into the food. We take that as an invitation to share our authentic passion for pure food. Not only are we doing good because we want to, but it’s a good business strategy. I don’t track it. I just know it. I know how Beecher’s is received. Yes, I have some data, but more so, I see evidence in the success of our company.
How can we learn more about your work?
Visit our Beecher’s Homemade Cheese store in New York (or Seattle). Make yourself comfortable and enjoy some great cheese. We like to be the inexpensive end of the expensive scale, we are your entry point to the artisan cheese movement. We want our cheese in your food and on your board. Cheese shouldn’t be elitist. Also, please check out the Pure Food Foundation – and either donate or introduce to your children’s school. You can also find us @BeechersNY and on Facebook.
Blog author Stephanie Miller is a food tech and digital marketing consultant who grows the market opportunity for sustainable food economy brands and products. She is a volunteer supporting the Change Food Fest.
The Change Food Fest “Growing the Good Food Movement” will take place in New York City on November 12 and 13, 2016. We will explore and celebrate change happening in the food system. Rather than simply talk about problems, we will actively look at solutions that are leading us to the sustainable food system we wish to see. Our focus will be on both real and visionary change and will include an exploration into seafood, plant based vs. meat diets, possible impacts of new businesses and investment money coming into the food space – and much more. Join us! You can purchase a ticket or host a viewing party of the live webcast in your local community.