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What is the Role of Food in Social Justice?

Food is key to everyone. Some have it and some don't have enough. What will it take to equalize food for all?
Danielle Nierenberg, Frank Sesno, at the 2015 Ag Issues Forum
2015 Bayer CropScience

Today food conversations are too fragmented and many times contentious. Danielle Nierenberg and FoodTank aim to bring the conversations of food to the forefront through digital channels, live events with large media channels (like the New York Times), and conversations with groups while eating a meal.

Below is a transcript of a conversation between between Danielle Nierenberg, FoodTank's President, and Frank Sesno, the 2015 Ag Issues Forum host and master of ceremonies. This audio for this transcript is also available for listening [link].



Danielle Nierenberg - The Role of Food in Social Justice


Frank Sesno:

Danielle Nierenberg is president of Food Tank, she is an expert on sustainable agriculture food issues. She co-founded Food Tank in 2013 as an organization building a global community. It says this on their page, " Building a global community for safe, healthy nourished eaters." Danielle brought Food Tank and their summit to George Washington University and we partnered there. We partnered through the Planet Forward thing.

I have gotten a chance to know her, dig in to her passion, belief, remarkable view that this is an issue that permeates lots of interest, people, and happens both, as they say, locally and globally. So, please join me in welcoming Danielle Nierenberg.

[applause]

[music]

Frank:

We will sit wherever you want. You want to sit here?

Danielle Nierenberg:

Sure.

Frank:

I'll move. This is a little dance. You go there, I'll go back. There we go. It's good to see you.

Danielle:

It's good to see you.

Frank:

I heard your plane is canceled.

Danielle:

I'm rebooked. I love the staff here. Thank you so much. I also want to thank Barry for inviting me. It's a real pleasure to be here.

Frank:

In case anybody's flying, there's some big disruptions out there, because of weather, so not a good thing.

I want you to give people a look, how many folks in the room aren't know "Food Tank"? A lot, but not everybody. Let's start by giving background on where Food Tank came from, why you did this and started this?

Danielle:

Food Tank came out of a big trip, a two year trip that I took around the world. I visited 50 plus countries, interviewed hundreds and hundreds of farmers, as well as policymakers, teachers, academics, students, women's groups and a whole variety of stakeholders in the food system. At the time, I was working for an environmental organization and I had been for many years.

Environmentalists are known for being gloom and doom, we were. I really...

Frank:

Were you gloom and doom?

Danielle:

The environment is such, that I was. I expected to see terrible things, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and I did. I also saw such inspiring examples of hope and success in the food system. These were things that were not getting government support, were not getting even NGO support in a lot of ways, were not being invested in by anyone.

[camera shot]

Frank:

They were just happening.

Danielle:

They were just happening. It was very grassroots. I wanted to shine a spotlight on them and tell these stories of having success in the food system, so all of us can be inspired.

Frank:

Food Tank came, so you decided what? I'm going to go start this?

Danielle:

I pretty much hit my limit at the organization I was working at. Great organization. They taught me so much. I wanted to do something different. Sometimes it's better to be your own boss. Sometimes it's worse. I thought it would be good to start this organization and do the things that I wanted to do.

Frank:

Meant to do what?

Danielle:

The organization's, again, meant to bring together individuals, eaters, farmers, policy makers, different organizations. Also, content and original research to push for food system change. We're trying to create awareness.

We're trying to be a platform for what's going on in the food movement and not reinvent the wheel. We don't want to be just another NGO doing what other non-profits do.

We want to be different and highlight what's working on small farms, on large farms, what's happening in different countries with policy, communities around access and affordability to food.

Becoming that platform, so when you come to the Food Tank website, and you type in urban agriculture, or you type in rainwater harvesting, whatever, you'll find the information that you're looking for.

Frank:

Advocacy?

Danielle:

Advocacy is some of what we do by our nature. It's less...

[crosstalk]

Frank:

What do you advocate?

Danielle:

We advocate for better awareness, knowing where your food comes from, educating yourself, being aware what's going on in your own backyard as well as around the world.

Frank:

Since we have so many storytellers in the room, people who worry about readers, ratings and such things, how are your metrics?

Danielle:

Our metrics are great. We're two years old. Our weekly newsletter is now reaching about 175,000 self subscribers. People who signed up for the newsletter.

Frank:

They pay for that?

Danielle:

No. It's free.

Frank:

It's the best kind.

Danielle:

We have about 1,700 members who have paid to become part of the Food Tank network. They're who we call sustainers. We have about 400,000 combined followers on social media. We're trying to get out there.

We do this, because not everyone can receive information in the same way. Not everyone will read an op-ed. Not everyone will read our newsletter, a tweet, or look at our Facebook post. If you can reach people where they are comfortable receiving information, that's part of our goal.

Frank:

I went on Food Tank this morning. I popped through a couple stories to pull some types of things down that you'd see if you went there today. Maybe some of you are going there now as we speak.

"101 Facts That Make Us Hopeful About Food. Sustainability and Dietary Guidelines. 10 Ways to Support the Next Generation of Farmers. Biofuels, Wrong Direction for Sustainability Food and Climate Future." It's filled with links and comments below it. Who are you trying to get to?

Danielle:

Everyone. Our audience is very general. That's good and bad. What my experience traveling and working for so long in this field has taught me is that we need to be reaching the funding and donor communities.

The foundations. The folks who have the big money who can invest in a lot of the things that we're highlighting and maybe aren't right now, because they don't know about them.

Frank:

One of things that you are most passionate about, I've heard you speak about it and there's lots of stuff on your site. We heard here earlier today. It's something that we spend a lot of time with, fascinates and engages young people in a big way, is gender, women in agriculture.

Talk about that. Why is that as particular area of focus for you and what is the metastory there that you find?

Danielle:

Sure. Women make up 43 percent of the global agricultural labor force. Not a lot of people know that. When they think of farmers, they usually think of men. In some countries, in sub-Saharan Africa, they make up as much as 80 percent of farm labor.

They are the farmers of the world. They are the people who are feeding us all. What happens is a sad story. They're routinely discriminated against. They don't have access to land and a lot of places, financial and banking services, extension agents, because they won't talk to them.

This is huge problem. The data support that if women, just that they had those same resources that I just mentioned, they could raise yields by 20 to 30 percent. They could lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger and poverty.

Those statistics are so startling. I'm constantly amazed that we're not investing more in women farmers around the world. If you look at the United States, the biggest segment of farmers now is women farmers.

It went down I guess a few percent in the 2012 agriculture census. We still have this stereotype view of farmers as man, and helping change that and tell the stories of these women.

Frank:

As you tell the story, let's this divide into global and domestic for a minute, thinking globally. Many of the stories and many of the challenges that women face is there are many parts of the world where they can't inherit property, or they can't sign contract.

Many parts of the world where they are on their own, because the men have moved to the cities to seek employment or they've died in war, HIV, AIDS, whatever it is. Even small things like the hours of the businesses around them that could be changed to accommodate the fact that there are also home with children have not happen.

What are some of the stories that you've told and are there some success stories out there that also have struck you that address these issues?

Danielle:

I met with this woman in Mali who had started her own seed company. Her name Madame Cole Valley.

She did things that I thought were very interesting, not only was she working with women seed producers, they produce all of the seed that she was selling. She was selling seeds in smaller packages so women could carry them on their shoulder.

Frank:

Interesting. Literally, these are the...

[crosstalk]

Danielle:

Smaller packages, because we don't have the same upper body strength as man.

Frank:

They may also be carrying their children.

Danielle:

Absolutely. Things like that, that bring women not in just as consumers of a product but as the producers of it, are so interesting, because these women were making money, also growing their own crops and had more access through the seed store that they would learning more things.

As I said before, the extension agents don't always talk to the women, but they could learn from the seed store how to grow different crops, how to manage their erratic weather, a whole range of things.

Frank:

How relevant is a story like that to an American audience?

Danielle:

It should be relevant to an American audience.

Frank:

It should be, but is it?

Danielle:

We're all connected.

Frank:

When I was in CNN, any international news that we did. If there was an explosion in it or an American killed in it, the ratings went down. Seriously. To try to tell an international story to a domestic audience in this country has always been difficult.

Danielle:

There are couple of things that I want to talk about around that. One is that one of food tanks' major goals is to bridge domestic and global food issues, show how whether it's malnutrition over there in sub-Saharan Africa, or obesity here in Phoenix that they're part of the same problems and some of the same resolutions.

We need to understand that what happens here and what happens over there are part of the same story. Second, We really need to galvanize what I call the food movement, but I'm not sure if there is a food movement in the United States. Maybe that's something we can talk about, too.

There are a lot of us in this room who are very concerned about our own personal health. We choose different products and we shop at certain places because we're concerned about, selfishly, but for our own health.

That's great, but if we can galvanize that foodie movement to combat what's going on in other parts of the world, to realize that there's a bigger story. Hunger, obesity, and climate change are all very connected. We can use all of that passion around food for global good.

Frank:

What's the gender story domestically?

Danielle:

The gender story domestically is very interesting. We featured a photographer who started this website called "FarmHer" where she traveled around the country taking these wonderful photos of women farmers and changing that stereotype that farmers aren't only men.

That farmers are families, that family farmers make up...There are 500 million of them around the globe. Women are a huge part of that. They're doing a lot of the labor. On farms in the United States, I grew up in a small town called Defiance, Missouri. It was all farming, corn, soybeans, livestock, and hogs.

I have very vague memories of the men farmers in that community, but I remember the women. They were the ones who were cooking for the church suppers and took food to people when they were sick. All of this was done while they were driving buses for the school and also farming. Realizing that women are playing all these different roles in agriculture that we don't always recognize.

Frank:

What's your view on whether there's a war out there over agriculture and food?

Danielle:

A war?

Frank:

Jim Blome talked about that yesterday having the stone barns thing and hearing Bitman talk there whose word he used.

Danielle:

I thought Bitman was very complimentary of the more conventional, or industrial farmers that were in the room at the end of that conference. I wasn't here during that speech yesterday. I think that there's a lot of misconceptions.

There's misconceptions about the work that I do, there's misconceptions about the work that many of the people in this room do. What we need is more dialogue and conversation. What this conference and what the Food Tank Summit, or the New York Times event can do is bring different voices together who normally wouldn't be in the same room. We should all be talking to each other, we shouldn't be at war, we should be trying to find common ground.

[applause]

Frank:

That's very much what we try to do with the Planet Forward project. We were partnering at the summit that you had which was at GW. It was remarkable. One of the interesting things is, there seems to be an appetite [laughs] to engage that dialogue, because you were booked solid. You had a wait list a mile long for people to attend. Do people want that wholesome dialogue, or do they just want access to the microphone to make their own point do you think?

Danielle:

Now to use another food pun, people crave that. People are craving to talk to one another. The Food Tank Summit was a great event, I loved doing it, having you there, everything that we did, but we were criticized in a lot of ways, because we didn't have enough farmers.

I fully acknowledge that we didn't have enough farmers on panels. We didn't have a big budget. I couldn't bring as many farmers as I wanted to in. A lot of the speakers, in addition to their day jobs, were also farmers. We tried to level that by doing that.

There is this need, this want from the people in this room, you, and me to have that conversation, to keep having the conversations and to find...In a lot of ways we all think that we totally disagree on all aspects of agriculture, if you're from the non-profit side versus the science, industrial, and company side. What I've found is that there is more in common than there isn't.

Frank:

Danielle do you dive into your analytics at Food Tank enough to figure out...Like New York Times has most emailed stories. Do you know which stories and which genre of stories drive the most eyeballs, interest and comment?

Danielle:

Yeah. [laughs] Lists, 101 organizations that are changing the food movement, ten ways to grow food in your backyard. Those lists are [laughs] what bring people to our website. For whatever reason we have been referred to as the Buzzfeed of the food movement.

We're more than that, because we bring people in and there are more in-depth articles, there are interviews with farmers or policy makers, or there are research publications to read. It's really lists.

[crosstalk]

Frank:

How about topics? Are people more interested in nutrition focused stories or how to...?

Danielle:

It's kind of even. It's not just one thing. We've started focusing a lot on nutrient density and this need, what we see as a need, to shed some of the focus from starchy staple crops to more nutrient dense foods. That's been very appealing for people. Anything we write about youth and women we get a lot of hits. Food waste is a big issue for us. We get a ton of feedback on our food waste stories.

Frank:

Great. I want to open it up to the floor and any questions you might have for Danielle so we can use her time and your time to make this a conversation. So anybody? Back to California Network, but mics have to come this way. I sprung this on you guys, sorry about that.

[silence]

Frank:

Here comes the mic.

[coughs]

[silence]

Male Audience Member:

Thank you. Danielle, we've been following you since you launched a couple years back. I think it's been that long hasn't it? How old is the organization?

Danielle:

We're two years old.

Male Audience Member:

Two years. We're just in awe of what you've done in such a short amount of time engaging people into conversation. You touched on a topic that's near and dear to my heart, is food waste. Talk about how Food Tank is focused on that as one of their pillars and how big of a problem is it?

That's a huge problem. Not the availability of food, but how much food is wasted. Not just by people but pest and diseases take a lot of the food. We can't even get it harvested.

Danielle:

Absolutely. It's such a great question. Jason Brown, the force of nature that he is, alluded to that during his talk this morning. We waste about one-third of all the food that we produce. In the developing world about 40 percent of food is lost, because of poor infrastructure.

Things as basic as roads, cooling facilities, or better access to markets hamper farmer's ability to make money. They're not only losing food when that food is lost, they're losing all of the inputs that went into it, whether it's water, fertilizer, or labor.

In the United States we have this flip side of the problem where food is so inexpensive. We buy too much whether we're at the farmers market or at Costco and those big boxes of cereal, or the two for one offers. Our eyes are continually bigger than our stomachs, the retail and restaurant industries have followed suit.

Plates have gotten bigger over the last couple of decades. That's because food is so inexpensive. We haven't learned to value it. I've been able to travel so much, I know so many of you in the room have done the same thing. When you're eating at someone's home in sub-Saharan Africa, nothing goes to waste.

But if you eat at my house, and my mom's a wonderful cook, during the holidays we waste so much food, because it's all very inexpensive and there's more just down the street. For us, being able to highlight solutions, Jason mentioned gleaning of fields earlier this morning. There are lots of groups like the Post Harvest Education Foundation, that are working with farmers all over the developing world. You have the Food Recovery Network, and Ben Simon, who was named the Forbes...

Frank:

He was amazing, at the...

[crosstalk]

Danielle:

...Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs. He's working with university campuses all over the country to reclaim the food that would otherwise go to waste. There's so many solutions out there. For Food Tank, food waste is like the low-hanging fruit. It's such an easy problem to solve.

Even in the developing world, where there's more infrastructure that needs to happen, it's something where your investment as a foundation, or as a funder, goes a long way.

Frank:

One of your best panels at the summit was the food waste panel. The guy you had from DC Kitchen who told what they had to go through, to be able to go and reclaim the ugly fruits and vegetables, whether from the farm or from the throw-away stuff that wasn't really throw-away stuff from the restaurants, was a fascinating story.

It took something of a crusade on his part, but then he did it. It's made such a huge difference. Another question for Danielle? Right here. We have a mic on the way.

[background noise]

Frank:

We're going to have to put them on zip wires next time, like they do at the NFL. We'll get Jason to do the NFL zip wire camera here.

Danielle:

[laughs]

Frank:

[laughs]

Female Audience Member:

I'm glad you brought up your mother, because you remind me a lot of my daughter. [laughs] I was hoping you could talk about generations of women. What are the differences you see with your generation of women in agriculture, versus your mother, or your grandmother's generation?

Danielle:

That's a great question. I went to graduate school at the Tufts School of Nutrition Science and Policy, that's at Friedman School. If you look [laughs] at the Friedman School as the whole, it's made up of women who are studying nutrition, [chuckles] agriculture, food and environment, I was at the time.

It's a school of women. That's very different from the opportunities that my mother certainly had, and her mother certainly had. You see more young women farmers, in so many places. I don't have the stats at the tip of my fingers, but again, women make up the majority of farmers in the US, as well.

It's such an interesting time to be involved in food, and agriculture, because there's so many opportunities out there. At the same time, I'm sure you spoke about this yesterday, young farmers, and young women farmers, face so many barriers.

They don't have access to land in the United States, as much as they could. They don't have the mentoring from older farmers. They don't have the business skills. There's a lack of business skills.

Frank:

Many of them are coming out of college, carrying college debt, so that they ended to farm.

Danielle:

Absolutely. This is an exciting time, but it's a challenging time for women in the food system.

Frank:

Very much so. Let's see, where are the mics? There's a hand in the back, and anybody else? Let's just go in the back. There we go.

George Horga:

George Horga, MG News Michigan. We have a lot of Amish moving into our area. In fact, I have an Amish farmer that bought a farm adjoining mine. I look over there, I see a field that he's planted, very low carbon footprint, because of the horses, no diesel fuel used, but yet, when the combine runs down my field, and over that imaginary fence...We don't have a fence, we get along good.

Over into his field, we're getting six times the product per acre off mine. How do you reconcile that, when we're trying to feed a hungry world?

Danielle:

It's such a good question. If you look at some of the data comparing conventional yields to organic yields, they're creeping up. Organic's not as low as you might think. I can point you to studies, after this presentation.

It's not all about either, or we're either going to use horse-drawn tractors, or we're going to use our big combine. For a lot of farmers, there's a middle ground. For a lot of the smaller scale, medium scale, and young farmers, they want to do it differently than their fathers did, or their mothers did.

It's not about only yields. We need to focus on how we build communities, how we increase incomes, how we improve nutrient density of crops. It's not just about calories, and that's something we've learned over the last maybe 40 years, that we're really, really good at producing calories, but we're not so great at producing nutrients.

That's why you see both malnutrition and obesity existing in the same countries, or even in the same families. I don't think it's either, or.

Frank:

OK, here we go.

Chris Clayton:

Chris Clayton, DTN/The Progressive Farmer. Following up on that, I'm wondering what studies you've seen regarding changes in nutrient density, and nutrients in various production practices, do you guys have seen reports, or studies breaking down an organic sweet corn versus another type of sweet corn production method?

Danielle:

A great study came out of Washington State University, and Dr. Chuck Benbrook's work on this. I can follow up with you, and send it to you. It found that on the whole, organic crops had more nutrient density than conventionally grown crops.

There's some inconsistencies in that, definitely more research needs to be done, but it was also building on research that came out of the UK. I don't remember the name of the study, offhand. It's from the same thing, but I'm happy to send you both reports.

Frank:

Danielle, in the minute, or so we have left, if you had no financial constraints whatsoever.

[background sound]

Frank:

Imagine that. You could go anywhere in pursuit of the stories that you want to put up on Food Tank, that you think your audience, you most want them to know, and they'd be most interested in, where would you go, and what would you be focusing on? What would you want to feature?

Danielle:

Arizona's a really interesting place. We did a film with Greener Media called "Man in the Maze," about the work of Gary Paul Nabhan, and food deserts in Arizona. There's so much to see in our own backyards. It's maybe not the only place in the world I would want to go.

I think all of us, it's not just me, but if we all had no constraints, if we could all tell the stories that need to be told in agriculture, it's looking in your own backyard, and telling those stories.

Arizona, in terms of indigenous food, with everything being grown here in the desert, that a lot of people don't know about, the work that's being done by small farming communities, local food banks, which we heard a lot about last night. The stories that are closest to you are probably the most interesting.

Frank:

What about urban America, urban agriculture? Millennials, we talked to them yesterday, they're urban creatures. Is there a big story there to be told?

Danielle:

Absolutely. Nearly a billion people are farming in cities around the world. It's been a focus for Food Tank. It's something we want to work more on. The more that we can have uber-local urban food systems, where people feel more connected to their own food, because they're growing it, the better.

It doesn't mean that they're not going to need to go to the grocery store, or buy from other producers, but it does give you a sense of pride, and a sense of community, when you're growing your own food.

Frank:

Thank you.

Danielle:

Thank you.

Frank:

[laughs] Ladies and gentlemen, thank Danielle Nierenberg...

Danielle:

Thanks again.

[applause]




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