Five takeaways from the AFA Food Institute

How do you pack a month of food industry exposure into just three days? Attend the Agriculture Future of America’s Food Institute. Tours, sensory testing, food banking, production, supply chain, and sustainability were just a few of the topics addressed during the last three days. Thanks to McDonald’s for hosting us at Hamburger University outside of Chicago! Here’s five of my takeaways:

1. The food industry is small but diverse

There’s always one thing I can count on when I attend food and agriculture events: I’m going to make a connection with someone. It’s a small agriculture world out there. There was also an opportunity to meet new students in the food and agriculture fields, and it’s only a matter of time before we cross paths again. Traveling across Chicagoland with my new network also reminded me how diverse the businesses in the food industry are, from suppliers to retailers. There are endless opportunities to engage consumers from the farm to the table.

2. The food industry is changing

Grant Prentice, the Director of Strategic Insights at FoodMinds, started off the institute with a compelling talk about food industry drivers and values. “It’s not just about the food, it’s about the societal and cultural impacts that’s surround the food production,” he said. Years ago, consumers only valued price and taste. Now, there’s more to the story. Grant pointed to drivers such as climate change, increasing obesity rates, and a climbing population that are causing a shift in consumers’ perceptions about food. Most importantly for communicators, channel proliferation is making it harder to reach consumers with a cohesive message about food and agriculture.

“It’s not just about the food, it’s about the societal and cultural impacts that’s surround the food production.” – Grant Prentice, FoodMinds

3. The food industry is responding to change

On the second day of the institute, my group of delegates toured the OSI Group beef plant in West Chicago, the McDonald’s Innovation Center, and the PepsiCo Research and Development facility in Barrington, IL. Innovation and change were evident during these tours. McDonald’s and PepsiCo especially, as consumer facing brands, are seeing rapid change as a result of new consumer values. Companies like Archer Daniels Midland are developing new natural flavors  for companies that are working towards cleaner labels.  There’s definitely work to do when it comes to education consumers about their food and why they don’t need to fear most preservatives, additives, and genetic modification.

4. The food industry has work to do

Forty percent of the food supply is wasted and millions don’t get enough to eat. We heard from the Chicago Food Depository and the Global FoodBank Network. Both organizations are working with large corporations like Cargill to combat food waste and hunger. Food banks across the world are working on initiatives such as collecting the soybeans used for testing and re-purposing them as animal feed. The Global FoodBanking Network has created a worldwide system to ensure food banks have access to the resources they need. There’s still more influential organizations like PepsiCo and McDonald’s can do and after this week, I’m confident they’re headed in the right direction.

5. The food industry has a bright future

I have a great network of agriculture peers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and it’s encouraging to meet other students from across the country with the same passion and motivation. The future of the industry cares about feeding the world, employing efficient technologies such as genetic engineering and precision equipment, and improving the environmental impact.

Questions about my experience, want more details, or would just like to connect? Comment below, email me at, or tweet @jordangaal.

Featured photo courtesy of AFA, located at the McDonald’s Innovation Center.

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