Founder and Co-Director, Sustainable Food Lab
As a dairy farmer, rural community activist, and nonprofit director, Hal Hamilton yearned to bring the notion of sustainability from the shadows to the mainstream; he was especially eager to reach the massive agricultural corporations that dominated food production and distribution. It’s this sentiment that propelled him to found the Sustainable Food Lab, a Vermont-based consortium that spurs market-based solutions for a healthier global food system through a range of summits, events, and trainings, where he has been since 2004.
“Hal will never take status quo for the answer,” says Jan KeesVis, a 2011 JBF Leadership Award honoree and the global director of sustainable sourcing at Unilever, who regularly works alongside Hamilton as the current co-chair of the Food Lab’s advisory board. “He’s taught me that people who are outside the usual conversations can sometimes be the ones to move the conversation in a completely new direction,” Vis adds. “And he has a keen eye for bringing parties together that would have never met otherwise.”
In addition to joining forces with food industry leaders, such as Unilever, to engage with 500,000 small farmers through their supply chain, Hamilton’s organization served as an important incubator for like PepsiCo. The multinational food and beverage giant utilized a reduced greenhouse gas approach—developed by the Food Lab—on products like Walker’s Crisps and eventually committed to a 50 percent reduction in five years for all production in Europe. Stateside, the Food Lab was instrumental in assisting America’s largest food distributor, SYSCO Corporation, to build a sustainability plan that enabled it to eliminate pesticides in fruit and vegetable production, benefiting nearly 700,000 acres of land as a result.
“You can define success as 700,000 acres of fruits and vegetables, but you can also define it by seeing whether people are able to connect their jobs to their strongly held values—the values they don’t normally think they can bring to work,” explains Hamilton. “But all of a sudden, they can know they’re contributing to the world being a better place while also contributing to the success of their business,” he adds. “It’s about connecting values to self-interest.”
Sustainability and profitability can also co-exist, asserts Hamilton, as he offers an energetic description of a current project, focused on solutions for the American beef industry. It’s an endeavor that encompasses a dizzying list of players, ranging from major buyers, like Walmart and McDonald’s, to watchful NGOs, such as the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.
Hamilton admits that it’s “relatively easy” for him to understand how NGOs, large retailers, farmers, and academics all occupy different seats within the same system. “In the case of beef production, there are negative consequences on water and air and nutrition,” he says. “But no Walmart employee’s job description actually states that they have to negatively affect the income of farmers,” he adds. “Ultimately, we’re doing what we have to do to create conversations between people who don’t speak the same language, take steps toward sustainable food supply, and meet everybody’s needs in the end.”
About the James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards
The 2013 JBF Leadership Awards recognize visionaries from a broad range of backgrounds, including government, nonprofit, and literary arts, who are working toward creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable food world. Now in its third year, the Leadership Awards recognize specific outstanding initiatives as well as bodies of work and lifetime achievement. Winners were honored at a dinner ceremony that took place during the James Beard Foundation Food Conference on October 21 in New York City. For more information, visit jbfleadershipawards.org.
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Archived Video Coverage of the 2013 JBF Food Conference