Stories / Foundation News, Impact

Good Food, Unpacked

Mitchell Davis

October 23, 2018


Cheetie Kumar and Tracy Chang Photo: Ken Goodman
Photo: Ken Goodman

The James Beard Foundation is about good food for good. But what do we mean by “good food,” and how are we working “for good?” In a world where everyone has their own personal feelings towards the means to a better food system, how can an organization like the Beard Foundation choose a path forward? Below, chief strategy officer Mitchell Davis offers up an explanation of our efforts to answer those complex questions, and why we’ve placed our faith in the power of chefs and other culinary leaders to make our future more sustainable and delicious for all.


The problem with food is that everyone’s right. Whatever quality you want to focus on—taste, tradition, authenticity, sustainability, technology, even healthfulness—almost everyone has a different answer they believe to be true. Our beliefs about food are informed by our unique set of values, our particular cultural or political perspectives, our own experiences and how they reinforce or conform to our tastes—in short, our vision of the world. Even the degree to which we view new scientific information is mitigated by what our mothers told us about certain curative properties of this soup or that.

What’s the most authentic way to make Vietnamese pho? The answer varies depending on what region of Vietnam you are talking about, what experiences with the beloved beef soup you have had, whether you are from inside or outside the Vietnamese community, or where in the power structures that govern access to food, cultural capital, money, and media you sit. Your position on the spectrum of cultural appropriation may also impact how your notion of authentic pho is received by whom. There are many ways to stake a claim about what is good.

What must we do to feed the 9 billion people expected to inhabit planet Earth by 2050? Depending on your point of view, either we need to invest in inventing new technologies quickly to make our current agriculture more productive and less environmentally depletive, or we have to slow down, stop wasting food, and realize we already produce enough if we can only figure out how to distribute it better. The urgency of the challenge can be used to validate just about any approach.

Despite the topsy-turvy truthiness of the moment we live in, not everything can be true at the same time. And these multiple, individualized truths about food can make it difficult for food organizations like the James Beard Foundation to put a stake in the ground toward making our food system—and our world—better for everyone.

At the James Beard Foundation, our vision is a world in which everyone can enjoy delicious, nutritious food produced in a sustainable way.

In order to do our part in bringing that about, we believe the best use of our reputation and resources—built up in our 32 years at the forefront of America’s food revolution—is to support and enable chefs and other culinary leaders playing a role in making change. Hence our mission to celebrate, nurture, and honor chefs and other leaders making America’s food culture more delicious, diverse, and sustainable for everyone.

As artists, technicians, tastemakers, business operators, employers, hospitality providers, community builders, immigration experts, economic drivers, neighborhood revitalizers, problem solvers, and many more things, chefs, restaurateurs, and other culinary leaders sit at a powerful nexus between local and global, community and enterprise, personal and political, serious and fun. They are trusted leaders and talented artists who make delicious things that bring people together. And when it comes to food, they are also effective agents of change.

Over the years, our organization has gone from celebrating and honoring chefs, their colleagues, and other stakeholders in the food industry, to also training and encouraging them to advocate for change. We’ve taken our platform and spotlight and shifted the focus from pure gastronomy to public good. When global leaders and local policymakers have wrestled with important issues about food, we’ve brought chefs into those conversations to make sure the elements of food culture are not overlooked, and that gastronomy is a key element of solutions proposed at every level.

The James Beard Foundation has recently begun to articulate and establish our own set of values that we believe support a better food system. We believe a good food system ought to be:

1. Equitable
2. Environmentally sustainable
3. Economically viable and sustainable
4. Inclusive, participatory, and culturally resonant
5. Locally oriented but globally interconnected
6. Always improving and evolving
7. Rooted in tradition, but open to new technology and creative solutions
8. Flexible, resilient, and regenerative
9. Supportive of a healthy population and healthy communities
10. Focused on quality and values deliciousness

As we work to both validate and refine this set of values, we are also cultivating an army of advocates to support it in the work they do to produce a culture of food in America that resonates with these values, accounts for individual beliefs, and is reflective of both who we are as Americans, and who we aspire to be.

In short, we like to say we are about Good Food for Good. And as the Beard Foundation continues to define and refine what we mean by good food as well as what kind of good we know it can do, we hope you will join us on this journey. The world is changing.


Mitchell Davis is chief strategy officer at the James Beard Foundation. Find him on Twitter and Instagram.