by Matt Alderton | September 15, 2016

Whether he or she is a Democrat or a Republican, the next president of the United States will be challenged with governing the nation. And believe it or not, governing the nation requires a lot of eating. From state dinners and committee meetings to fundraisers and power lunches, the next ruler of the free world will spend a lot of time chewing. In the process, members of the "Plate of the Union" campaign hope the new POTUS also will swallow some hard truths about the U.S. food system.

Started in October 2015 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Food Policy Action Education Fund, and the HEAL Food Alliance, Plate of the Union is an election-year education campaign designed to raise awareness around food issues in hopes that the next president will make them a priority in his or her first term.

Specifically, Plate of the Union is asking the Republican and Democratic nominees for president to pledge that in their first year of office they will: commit to ensuring that all Americans have access to healthy, affordable food; stop companies from marketing junk food to kids and end subsidies that support processed junk food; reform agricultural policies, subsidies, and supports to ensure fair markets and pricing for diverse farmers of all sizes; end Fair Labor Standards exemptions for farmworkers, raise the minimum wage for all food workers, and eliminate the sub-minimum wage for restaurant workers; and ban the practice of feeding antibiotics to farm animals that are not sick.

It's an ambitious agenda that requires leadership at the highest level of government. Because of meetings' and conventions' large food-and-beverage footprint, however, it's an agenda that also can benefit from the support of meeting planners, according to Claire Benjamin DiMattina, executive director of the Food Policy Action Education Fund. To learn how planners can contribute, Successful Meetings asked DiMattina to share more about Plate of the Union's mission and the positive role that meetings and conventions can play in advancing it.

How did Plate of the Union come about?

I work for an organization called Food Policy Action. About 18 months ago we started talking with folks at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the HEAL Food Alliance -- two of our close allies in Washington, D.C. -- and said, "It's beyond time that presidential candidates talk about food-system reform. How do we break through the noise and get candidates, campaigns, and voters to pay attention to what we see as important core-value issues?" From that came the Plate of the Union campaign, which is a national call to action for the next president to take leadership on some of these issues, including access to healthy and affordable food for all Americans, fair wages for workers, ensuring that farmers can stay on their land and have incentives for growing healthy food, and keeping antibiotics out of our food system. We officially launched last October, and for the last 11 months we've been hosting events around the country to try to break through the noise in what is a really busy and intense campaign cycle.

How have you leveraged meetings and conventions to get your message out?

When we launched the campaign we launched it from a conference. The New York Times hosts what they call a "Food for Tomorrow" conference every year where they bring leaders from around the country to Stone Barns near Tarrytown, NY, to work on food system and agriculture reform. We decided that event was the perfect platform and launch pad for our campaign. So, from the very beginning we've been trying to leverage the idea that [meetings and conventions] are a powerful way to carry a message and communicate with more people.

Especially political conventions, no?

Yes. Because our main target is the next president, we decided pretty early on that … we needed to be at the national party conventions. There are so many moments of time during a presidential campaign cycle that are important, but those are places where national and local leadership comes for four days every four years to set the priorities for their party. So we felt like it was a really important moment to show up.

We have a really fun food truck that we travel around the country with, so we decided to bring the food truck to the national party conventions. In Cleveland we did a couple different events. We did one that was open to the public where we parked the truck on Public Square right in the middle of downtown Cleveland and used social media to alert convention-goers and others that we were there. We talked to reporters and passers-by and used it to gather petition signatures and talk about our message. Then, later in the day, we hosted an event for delegates and national politicians at a restaurant that was owned by a local celebrity chef where we had a speaking program to talk about our campaign and what a better food system looks like.

Philadelphia was a little bit different in that there was an official welcome event for food trucks. It was a perfect fit for us. We set up really close to the convention center with other food trucks that were actually serving food and were local to Philadelphia. We set up a tent at our food truck and invited reporters and national politicians. Members of Congress came and we had a more casual but great speaking program that included [celebrity chef and Top Chef host] Tom Colicchio, who's part of our leadership team.

Do you feel like your presence at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions moved the needle on food-system reform?

We've absolutely moved the needle. What's important to note is that this is the largest effort of its kind ever mounted on food issues. So we feel really good about that. This is a combined effort of three core organizations and many, many stakeholders who are calling on the next president to embrace food-system reform. We've been able to leverage earned media and grassroots support, as well as field offices in five states, to get our message across to campaigns and candidates. Since we launched in October we've been communicating directly with candidates for president. At the time it was a much busier field, obviously; there were more than a dozen candidates running for president on the Republican side and three on the Democratic side, and we communicated with all of them. We had a great back and forth with many of the campaigns and contin-ue to keep that dialogue open.

Although your target is the next president, is there also room in your campaign for meeting planners?

We've found that food issues -- whether it be access to healthy and affordable food or overuse of antibiotics or the way we produce and then sell food in our country -- in many respects are really a value statement for most Americans and most voters. Meeting planners certainly fit within that. And probably what many meeting planners have seen over the last several years is there are more and more and more events and conventions on the food system. Whether it be Natu-ral Products Expo West, Natural Products Expo East, or some of the large conventions around traditional agriculture and farming, what we've seen is a growing constituency of people who care about the food system who are using meetings and conventions as opportunities to engage a broader audience.

Many meetings and conventions have a large food-and-beverage footprint. Is there low-hanging fruit for planners who believe in your mission and want to leverage their events to advance it?

One of the issues we work on at Food Policy Action that we think is low-hanging fruit is food waste. If you look at really large or even medium-sized events, for so long the food that wasn't eaten during the lunch hour would get thrown away. There are opportunities there to look for nonprofits or charities that can use that food for composting or, if it was prepared that day and hasn't been eaten, to feed the hungry. That question of how to support reuse of food is one that a lot of meeting planners can attempt to answer at their events.

Finally, what do you hope will happen in November?

Plate of the Union is a public education campaign that's trying to make the candidates running for president more aware that voters care about these issues. So, we're not endorsing either candidate; we're trying to make the public and the next president aware of these issues, which tangentially relate to so many other parts of the parties' platforms. There's a direct link to immigration, for example, to fair wages and the economy, to the environment, and to people's long-term health. This isn't a single-issue item; it's a value statement, and it's our hope that educating the public about the food system will get them to think about that value statement at the ballot box, and to call on the next president to address food system reform in office.