As The Good Food Institute’s policy director Jessica Almy, Esq. is at the forefront of our work to create a better food future through regulatory and statutory reform in Washington, and her advocacy for food-system improvement goes way back.
She took a break out of her busy day to chat with me about her goals and motivations to change food!
Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how that prepared you for your specific role?
I’m from Massachusetts originally. I grew up in a small town called Hopkinton, went to Gordon College, and got my master’s degree from Tufts University. I was working in policy when I realized that a legal education would provide me with useful tools to effect change. So I left the Bay State to attend law school at New York University, after which I moved to Washington, D.C. I practiced litigation here in the nation’s capital before having the opportunity to work on a campaign that got me thinking in the mindset that now guides my work at GFI—namely, how product placement and the supply side of the food system can dramatically influence food purchasing decisions.
Obviously I’m interested in this! Tell me more about that campaign?
Prior to coming to GFI, I led a campaign from the Center for Science in the Public Interest that focused on promoting healthier checkout aisles at grocery stores.
[Editor’s note: CSPI is the group behind the Nutrition Facts panels and the artificial trans fat ban.]
My first big project was a report on how people make food choices and why healthy checkouts would help. It’s funny that food choices feel so deliberate, but the research paints a different picture. Science shows that most of our food choices are unconscious, shaped by habit and environmental cues.
So rather than convince people to avoid checkout snacks altogether, we used three tools to make checkouts healthier. First, we worked with local health departments to institute voluntary changes in their communities. Second, we talked to big retailers and launched campaigns to get them to change. And finally, we drafted a model ordinance that would make healthy checkout the law of the land. Our efforts succeeded in getting Aldi and CVS to adopt healthy checkout policies.
In many ways, this is similar to GFI’s mission of making better options the most convenient options as well!
Exactly! When I learned about the Good Food Institute, I was struck by how GFI’s theory of change aligns with the best research on food choices: specifically, that systemic policy and environmental changes are more powerful than individual education. By leveling the playing field for plant-based foods and helping clean meat come to market, GFI is creating a healthy, humane, and sustainable food supply that doesn’t depend on people’s willpower. It’s exciting to be part of it!
There are obviously big opportunities for policy to make an impact here—what’s one way policymakers could take action right now?
Legislators should invest public funding in research and development for plant-based and clean meat in the next Farm Bill. I agree with the 24 thought-leaders convened by the Concordia Institute who recently opined that adoption of these sustainable proteins “stands to offer solutions to food insecurity, climate change, and nutritional health around the world.”
[Full disclosure: GFI was among this group!]
Additionally, regulators should work to ensure that there is a clear and efficient pathway to bring clean meat to market. The innovation is there. Bureaucracy shouldn’t get in the way.
And that’s not just me saying that! A recent report published by the National Academy of Sciences on the future of food and biotechnology flagged clean meat as an area of “high growth potential” and recommended that regulatory agencies develop a single point of entry into the regulatory system to streamline the approval process of clean meat.
What gives you hope that the food system is moving in a positive direction?
The widespread adoption of plant-based milks makes me happy. When I first started drinking soy milk, I’d have to go to a health food store to buy it. But now I can get it in the dairy case of any food store.
Where plant-based products are free to compete head-to-head with animal-derived products, everyone wins. Consumers have more choices available to them, and sales of sustainable and humane foods go up.
One way that policy can keep the playing field level for plant-based foods is to safeguard the right of plant-based companies to label their foods with names that consumers know and understand. We are fighting the dairy industry’s efforts to keep soy milk and almond milk makers from using the word “milk” on their packaging. And while we’re urging FDA to make clear that compound names like soy milk are permissible, we also make clear that the First Amendment protects this kind of free speech.
All of that is extremely important but also very technical work! What do you do to unwind?
I take conversational Spanish classes after work, and I love to bake. Sometimes I combine the two and bring galletas to class. My family and I also enjoy spending time exploring the city—we walk everywhere.
Okay, and I have to ask: What’s your favorite plant-based product (besides galletas!)?
How can I choose only one favorite product? You’ve stumped me! I’ve loved artichokes since I was a little kid, so I’d probably say Foodies’ Artichoke Burgers. But I also keep my kitchen stocked with Gardein Chick’n Scallopini, 365 Everyday Value Soymilk, and Daiya Mozzarella Style Shreds. And on Sundays, I love to relax with Treeline treenut cheese and crackers, a glass of wine, and a good podcast.
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It’s settled. I’m booking a Sunday-funday with you soon, complete with a Rich Roll Podcast and an extra serving of Treeline’s Cracked Pepper cheese. Thanks for all your work, Jessica!
Stay tuned for more details on GFI’s policy work here on the blog. And to learn more about what we do, you can read up at this link!