Robyn O’Brien has seen both sides of our food system. She went from working as a financial analyst with the big food companies to campaigning for change when food allergies took over her child’s life – and by extension her own. She has seen her entire belief system overhauled as her research led her to the realization that the systems we’ve inherited just don’t work for the 21st century.
As the executive director of the AllergyKids Foundation and the founder of Moms Voices, her mission is to make healthy food available for all families. We turned to this passionate mom and advocate to find out how we can build a better organic food system – one that protects the health of children everywhere.
What’s your earliest memory of food?
My earliest and fondest memory of food is of my grandmother baking brownies. She had raised four boys through the Great Depression, so she was always mindful of how precious food was – food was always a special occasion with her.
What was your first experience with organic?
My sister in law tried to teach me about organics, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. It wasn’t until my youngest child developed food allergies, and realizing that her immune system was seeing food as a threat. We started buying organic milk for her, but we were so compartmentalized that we were still drinking the other stuff. One day, I was standing at the grocery store thinking, “What am I doing?” We were so food illiterate, it was like learning how to read all over again.
How did you bring healthy eating and organic food into your life?
We definitely didn’t start this way. We just try little things every year, both in the kitchen and the garden. It’s important to recognize that you can’t do everything at once. Because I have a family of six, I think I was intimidated by food on so many levels. As an adult, I felt like I had to learn to cook all over again, so I made sure I taught my kids how to cook – that was super strategic, as a mom of four! They have a confidence in the kitchen that I didn’t have.
I was also super intimidated when people suggested growing our own food, but one day the kids came home with a little bean planted in a cup. I saw that and thought, if kids can do that, we can do it too. So we dug up a little patch of garden and it was so empowering. My husband is in finance, and he took to the garden like a spreadsheet! It is so empowering and rewarding to see what comes out of our garden. Seeing as I’m from Texas, we tend to grow things that can make salsa, like peppers and tomatoes. The kids love growing melons and berries.
What do you see as the benefits of organic food in your life? And in the world?
My interest in the food system started because of food allergies. I think, of all my research, the most surprising thing was learning that GMO seeds were designed to spray more chemicals on our food, and waking up to the realization that something we would never choose to have on our table was going into my kids and into me when I was pregnant, but also into the soil, into rainwater. To me the benefits of organic are clear. The question becomes, as we make the shift to organic, how can we structure farm systems to make organic a more affordable choice?
Your book, The Unhealthy Truth, is a very personal story of your research into food. What was your motivation for writing it?
I hadn’t actually planned to write a book! I came out from the food industry as a financial analyst, after realizing that a major food allergy site was funded by Kraft. I started unearthing information no one else had seen. The thought of it was incredible intimidating, writing this book, taking mountains of research and consolidating it into truth.
Naively, I thought if I could write this book and put it out there, I could return to finance. As it turns out, people kept pulling me back to telling the story. It was so incredible to realize this information doesn’t just scare people; it can inspire them. We’ve inherited a broken food system, but we can build a better one – so let’s get at it!
You uncovered a lot of alarming information in the course of your research; what did you find that gives you hope?
I find hope in knowing that some of the biggest companies are making the same food without dyes and additives in other countries. That means they can do it here, too! It’s important to always be really open to dialogue. I have executives from big food companies calling me because their kids have allergies, and seeing they are real people gives me hope, too.
We have to turn to icons in organic and hold them up as the visionaries they are. We wouldn’t be here with the option to feed our kids healthy food without visionaries like Arran Stephens. I see the organic industry acting as a compass for the larger food industry.
A lot of your work is focused on children’s health; can you share any advice for other moms who want to make healthy food choices for their little ones?
Focus on progress, not perfection. It’s so important to not make perfect the enemy of the good. Just try. A lot of people ask me, “Where should I start?” I always say, find a friend first, so you can cheer each other on. And pick something you consume every day, whether it’s your favourite cereal, mac & cheese, or yogurt, and shift that. See how it affects your family, and from there it becomes a lot easier.
For moms, I think, it’s key to realize that the landscape of motherhood has changed so much – our mothers just don’t understand the struggles we’re facing today. Find that friend so you can be in it together. Once you’ve started down the path, it’s important to have compassion and understanding that not everyone is working on the same schedule as you, and to offer your knowledge as a gift.
How do you share your passion for healthy food?
I sort of have a reputation for it by now! As a family, we offer information as a gift, that’s the way it’s best received. And we try to make it fun, whether that’s getting the kids involved at dinner, or opening our garden up to kids in the neighbourhood and celebrating it together.
What do you wish the world understood about organic food?
I think the biggest misunderstanding is the price and cost structure around food. The reason organic is so expensive in the grocery store is that agricultural funding isn’t properly allocated at the federal level. Our taxes go to subsidize chemical ag while organic farmers are charged fees to prove their food is safe.
There's a resistance around the price point of organic. If you could neutralize farming subsidies, marketing support, and crop insurance for conventional agriculture, the financial playing field would be more equal for farmers and more people would be able to afford organic. You’d have people saying “You know what, we want organic”. Price wouldn't be an issue. A goal of mine is to fix the financial structure at the federal level and for farmers, so that more people can afford organic.
What’s your vision for the future of food?
I think if you look at food as an operating system, the current one is jacked up on chemicals. For a long time, Microsoft dominated an operating system. Then Apple, Google, and so on came along and changed things. We can change things, we can build a better system – we just have to ask ourselves how? Instead of blaming, and pointing fingers, let’s get together and build a clean and safe food system.
Stay tuned - we've got a whole series of Q&A's coming up with the movers and shakers of the organic industry. Sign up here for our monthly newsletter so you won't miss a thing (tasty recipes, too).