Hillary Clinton (former Secretary of State, Senator of New York State, and first lady) kicked off FMI Connect, the annual food retail and safety event, by thanking the food industry professionals in attendance for their contribution in making the US a better place to live.
“What you’re doing by helping the agricultural sector of this country—the food supply, contributing to the health and well-being of America—is part of what will make us strong and able to take on the challenges of the future,” she said.
Among the important functions food folks have served in recent years, Clinton said, is tackling health issues like childhood obesity. Groups like the Clinton Foundation (a global initiative tackling a range of social and environmental issues) have joined the food and beverage industry in dealing with health problems affecting US consumers, especially the younger ones.
“We’ve had encouraging success working with food and beverage companies to reduce the calorie count in the drinks served to kids in school cafeterias and vending machines, by as much as 90%,” she said. “According to the CDC, obesity rates among our youngest children have begun to drop—however, there’s still a long way to go, and we need to keep at it.”
Also important, Clinton pointed out, is collaboration among companies for the greater good. In the face of increasing food industry globalization, she said, the fate of business in country can impact another.
“A collapsing economy in Athens, Greece can change the bottom line for businesses in Athens, Georgia,” she said. “What happens far from our borders really does matter to us, for our jobs, for our security, and the reverse also is true—America matters to people everywhere.”
Clinton—who has spent much of her life in national public service as first lady, Senator, Secretary of State—said food also helps connect people, both civilians and dignitaries.
“Food is the oldest diplomatic tool,” she said. “When I got to the State Department, we’d have meetings, and there was a stark contrast from what diplomats would be served in nearly any other capitol of the world—here’s the tea, coffee, dates, nuts, and other little snacks—it was a way of showing respect."
In contrast, Clinton said, foreign diplomats visiting Washington, D.C. wouldn’t be treated to much in the way of refreshments—often they would have to ask for a glass of water when they were thirsty.
“I said, ‘This is not a way to make friends and influence people,” she related. During her husband’s tenure in the White House, staff treated dignitaries to American foods like beef and wine—partly out of hospitality, but also to showcase the capabilities of the US food industry.
“It’s important everyone in the US government tries to sell American products and make the case for the export of American goods and products,” she said.
Food manufacturing and agriculture, Clinton said, can be a powerful tool for strengthening relationships and bringing stability to at-risk countries. For example, until a few decades ago, Afghanistan’s famed pomegranate fields had been devastated by Soviet invasion, infighting among warlords, and the Taliban; now, with the help of agricultural experts and other food professionals, the country is rebuilding, and farmers are learning to use modern farming techniques to build their business.
Stewart Resnick, owner of Wonderful Brands (behind POM Wonderful, Wonderful Pistachios, and other popular foods) jokingly asked Clinton “just between you and me” if Clinton would choose FMI Connect as the platform for her official announcement. Clinton, who has dropped broad hints in recent months (including the Ready for Hillary campaign) but danced around full commitment, was predictably cagy.
“If I decide to do it, I’ll let you be the first to know,” she quipped.
Clinton also touted her record of service on behalf of food producers as processors. For example, as a Senator for New York, she promoted awareness of the state’s agriculture industry and supported agribusiness-positive legislation. Additionally, she has backed immigration reform measures that would address staffing concerns of growers, processors, and other food-related businesses; however, she said, the country has yet work to do.
“We can always do better,” she said. “That’s what Americans do—it’s in our DNA.”
Clinton stopped by FMI Connect (scheduled June 10-13 in Chicago) during the tour to promote her just-released book, Hard Choices, profiling her years serving as Secretary of State under President Barack Obama.