03/09/2011 02:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Do White Castle and Sustainable Food Have in Common? More Than You Think

Diners salivate as they await their meal: fresh, high-quality ingredients cooked before their very eyes. A woman stares eagerly at the white-coated chef, watching him adjust the piping hot beef with perfect precision. Her husband hears his stomach growl, just loud enough to rise above the sizzling hum emanating from the steam-filled kitchen.

A scene out of a hip, organic eatery in Manhattan? Try again.

That's a picture of 1921, when Americans were introduced for the first time to the fast food hamburger in Wichita, Kansas.

Back then, hamburgers were already common in fairs, circuses and lunch counters. But stifling the future of this American phenomenon was a debilitating stigma: people thought it was cheap and poor quality. In fact, thanks to Upton Sinclair's terrible look into the meatpacking industry, many people assumed that hamburgers were made of slaughterhouse scraps or even spoiled meat.

It took some revolutionary thinking -- and some fast food revolutionaries -- to change all that. It took some serious thought leadership.

In 1921, two Kansas entrepreneurs founded White Castle, the first fast food chain in the country. Hoping to transform the public's perception of the hamburger, they constructed their restaurants so that diners could watch the chefs cook, seeing (and therefore not fearing) the ingredients that went into their food. To make their restaurants appear clean and chic, Anderson and Ingram used white porcelain enamel and stainless steel interiors, and gave their employees spotless uniforms.

Amazingly enough, the American hamburger was born out of the same desires that are shaping our food culture today -- a desire for fresh, higher quality ingredients that taste good and won't make you sick.

All of those criteria have sadly been lost in the Fast Food explosion, as McDonalds rakes in over $20 billion per year with highly processed, assembly-line chow.

Today, a new generation of revolutionary thinkers is blazing the way towards a more sustainable, healthier food system. This year, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) received 265 nominations for its 2011 Growing Green Awards, a national award series that recognizes thought leaders, farmers, food producers and businesses across the country that are transforming the future of what we eat and how it's grown.

The brilliant ideas of these applicants blew us away. From the brain of one UC Santa Cruz student grew the plan for a nationwide campaign to convince universities and colleges to buy 20 percent of their food from sustainable sources. The Real Food Challenge now travels around the country, giving students the skills and planning assistance they need to transform food purchasing at their own schools.

Instead of food for thought, these movers and shakers are showing extraordinary thought for food.

So whether you've got a brainchild of your own or are just hungry for some fresh ideas on food and farming, stay tuned. NRDC will announce its 2011 Growing Green Awards winners in The Huffington Post in April. Check out some previews of the other finalist categories here and here.

Click below to hear the stories of last year's NRDC Growing Green Award winners: