Alleviating Hunger in Deprived Regions with Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg

August 12, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. We’re so honored and excited to have today with us Danielle Nierenberg. She’s the co-founder of Food Tank and the Food Think Tank. Welcome to Green is Good, Danielle. DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Oh, thank you so much for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Danielle, your biography and what you’ve done is just amazing. We could literally take the whole 15-minute segment just to go over your amazing life, so before we even get into talking about Food Tank and all the great work you’re doing there, can you please share with our listeners out there your amazing- and I say amazing- journey? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Well, thanks. I’ve had a real honor and opportunity to travel to more than 35 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America talking to farmers and farmers’ groups, policymakers, scientists and researchers, women’s groups and activist groups, youth and students and a whole range of other stakeholders and really collect their thoughts about what’s working on the ground to help alleviate hunger and poverty while also protecting the environment so that work, being able to do all that on the ground research and listen to the stories of those folks helped lead to the formation of the Food Think Tank and our work to really highlight success stories in food and agriculture around the world and we do that because if you think about Sub-Saharan Africa or you think about the developing world in general, you tend to think of these places as very hopeless. You think of famine and conflict and HIV/AIDS and other diseases and you don’t think about really what’s going on in these rural and urban areas alike that’s really working to help people lift themselves out of poverty and to make sure that they’re producing nutritious foods and increasing their incomes so again, that work really inspired us to begin Food Tank and do the work that we’re doing now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your website, and for our listeners out there, I’m going to be on the website during the whole show because first of all, it’s beautiful. It’s engaging. It’s chock full of information but I’m on it right now and for our listeners who want to follow along, it’s www.foodtank.org. When you say ‘we’, you’re talking about your partner, Ellen Gustafson? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Yeah, Ellen Gustafson and I founded Food Tank in January of this year and Ellen’s work has really been more on the entrepreneurial side of the food system. She co-founded Siege Foundation at the World Food Program, which was a foundation that really helped provide meals to thousands of children all over the world and so she began that foundation with Lauren Bush. They funded it by selling what are called seed bags at department stores around the world including Macy’s and others so her work and my work really compliment one another because we’ve sort of tried to attack the problem of food insecurity and lack of nutritious food and poverty from really different angles. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your website now, and it’s literally one of the best websites I’ve ever seen so for instance, I’m on the website; Thirteen Books on the Food System that Could Save the Environment. You have TEDx on here. You have weeds that make their way from the garden to the gourmet, a revolution from the ground up. For our listeners out there, this website is so inclusive and it’s so amazing. You’ve gotta go there. Like I said earlier, FoodTank.org. Let’s talk about the issues now. What’s the most important issues around food and agriculture that you and your partner, Ellen, are focusing on? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Well, I think one of the biggest issues is this idea that we need to change the metrics of how we measure what a successful food system looks like. In my lifetime, the only measure that we’ve used have been calories and yield. How much are we producing? How are we able to fill people up? And, the downside is then that we have about 1 billion people who go to bed hungry each night and we have another 1.5 billion people who are overweight or obese, so something about our food system isn’t working. We’re good at filling people up, but we’re not really good at nourishing them and we’re not good at making food accessible, so how can we change our metrics? How can we ask different questions? For example, does a particular cropping system produce nutrient dense food? Does it enhance soil quality or protect water supplies? Does it help farmers increase their access to markets? Does it empower youth or increase gender equity? We’re really working with our advisory group and a whole range of experts to really ask different questions and then come up with different measurements so that we can have sort of a different system for policymakers, for the funding and donor communities, and for farmers themselves to utilize when they’re determining what to grow and how to grow it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk about this new term that I’ve just recently come in touch with called “family farmers.” What does that have to do with the whole agriculture and food ecosystem around the world, family farmers? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Well, when you look at who’s producing the food around the world, there are around 500,000,000 smallholder farmers in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Asia, Latin America and most of these farmers, not surprisingly, are family farmers. They’re farming small plots, usually less than 2 hectares. They’re producing some food to sell, but mostly trying to provide food and income for their families, and so Food Tank has had the opportunity to partner with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to really begin highlighting the important role that family farmers play, not just in providing food for their families, but for other services that they provide, the practices that they’re using that help mitigate climate change, for example, sequestration of carbon in soil. There are a whole range of practices like agroforestry that can really help farmers. Farmers often get blamed for a range of environmental problems but they also are really helping mitigate those problems through different practices and family farmers have a tremendous role in this so again, next year will be the International Year of Family Farming. We’re giving them on our website the recognition that they deserve. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Danielle, you travelled the world and for our listeners that just joined us, we’ve got Danielle Nierenberg from the Food Tank with us right now right on the show. FoodTank.org is her great website. Please go to it. I’m on it right now and you mentioned at the top of the show that you travelled to over 35 countries in Africa and Asia and Latin America. Where do you find hope among all this hopelessness that the media likes to portray, of course, but where’s the hopeful glimmers and the stuff that we should be focusing on and helping with so we can help our food problem, as you say, and help rebalance to nourish the world whereas, as you said earlier, a billion people are going to sleep hungry and over a billion people are obese. The scales are not weighing out here. We’re doing a poor job on this planet, so where’s the hope? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: I don’t want to undermine the problems that exist. In addition to the stories of hope and success I saw, I saw plenty of terrible examples of a food system gone wrong. I’ve seen terrible malnutrition in communities and other problems but I have a million stories of where things are working and one very important one is in Uganda where a young group of men in their early 20s who have been able to have the chance to go to university are giving back to their community. The leader of this group, which is called Developing Innovation in School Cultivation or Project DISC, Eddy Mukiibi founded this organization because he saw the little kids in his community not knowing what different foods were. One of the problems in Sub-Saharan Africa is that the traditional foods, the indigenous foods, are often looked down upon. People think of them as poor people food and unfortunately, these are the foods, whether they’re leafy greens or different kind of vegetables and fruits, are often the most nutritious and these are crops that people have been growing for generations but as both rural and urban areas kind of modernize, these foods are again looked down upon. People want to buy more imported foods because those things are more modern and better for them. Unfortunately, as diets change, so do the incidents of chronic diseases such as obesity and heart disease and other chronic problems so Eddy and his comrades really wanted to bring back these traditional foods so they’ve been working on school garden programs in their district in Uganda. They’ve started 17 school garden projects, and school garden projects are not unusual, but what’s unusual about what they’re doing is they’re not only teaching the kids how to grow the food but also teaching them how to harvest and process and cook that food and then enjoy it as consumers and sort of educating their palates about what tastes good and why it’s important so it’s creating sort of a revolution among the youth there to appreciate the foods that their grandparents and their great-grandparents made. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, it’s a real holistic approach? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Absolutely and one that can spread from generation to generation. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Great, and we’ve got about three minutes left, unfortunately, but I’m on your site like I said and I’m just looking at your partners: The World Vegetable Center, Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, Bioneers, Food Day, Food Mythbusters, Millennium Institute, Nutrients for All, and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization. I gotta just tell you shout out to all of them for supporting your great work, Danielle. What you’re doing and what Ellen’s doing, you two are the types of folks that change the world but listen. Because we’re down to three minutes, I want to ask two quick more questions. Talk about youth and women. I have a young daughter. She’s 26, and I keep telling her this is your generation. Women are going to now take over and become the leaders. There’s very few glass ceilings left. Probably those are going to be shattered in the few years ahead of us here. Talk a little bit about your focus and investment into youth and women in agriculture. DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Absolutely. When you look at the statistics, women make up about half of the agricultural labor forces around the world and in some countries, women make up to 60 to 80% of the population of farmers. Unfortunately, they’re not given the resources that men typically do. They don’t have access to credit or banking and financial services. They don’t have access to education. They don’t have access to inputs like the Siege and they don’t have the services like men do and so really breaking down those barriers and helping women and youth — youth experience the same sort of barriers often that women do — and giving them the resources they need and giving them the education that they need will be really critical in increasing and improving food production. Research from the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that if women had the same access to resources as men, yields could be increased dramatically as well as income so it really benefits everyone if we decide that it’s important to invest in youth and women because, as you said, they are the future and they’re already doing this work anyway. They’re just not getting credit for it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Danielle, one last question. We love to give windows of opportunity for our listeners to become changemakers. What can our consumers, our listeners out there, do to change the food system? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: It’s everything from as simple as getting to know where your food comes from by leading labels to visiting a farmers market and spending a small portion of your dollar there and asking the farmers that you meet how they grow their food, what their lives are like. Really putting a face to what you’re eating is important. It’s not just enough to vote with your fork. We really also have to vote with our votes and make sure that the policymakers we have in office are changing the food system in really positive ways. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so well put, and Danielle, I’m gonna want to have you back on because this story is an evolving one and it has so much more to go and we have so much more to do, not only in the United States, but around the world and your work and Ellen’s work is so to be commended and we need more people like you two young women to do this work because there’s so much that we can still accomplish together. Danielle, for our listeners out there, to see her great work again, it’s www.foodtank.org. Danielle, you are a sustainability leader and an amazing catalyst for change and truly living proof that green is good. DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Thank you so much for having me.