Creating a Better Food System with Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg

January 20, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. We’re so excited to have back on the show Danielle Nierenberg. She’s the co-founder of Food Tank. Welcome back to Green is Good, Danielle. DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Thank you so much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Danielle, you’re doing such important work at Food Tank and we were so thrilled to have you on the first time but we’re going to continue the conversation today but before we get to talking about the journey you’re on at Food Tank and all the great work you do there, for the listeners who didn’t have the opportunity to hear the first show, please just share the Danielle Nierenberg story first and how you even came to this position and how you co-founded this great and amazing organization. DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Thank you. You know, Food Tank is really based on a lot of the work that I have the opportunity to do in the developing world. I spent about two years on the ground visiting more than 35 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and I had this great opportunity to talk to hundreds of farmers’ groups and women’s groups, researchers, scientists, policy makers, students and academic journalists and others who are really working on the ground and you know, I had this great opportunity again to really share their stories of hope and success and what we try to do with Food Tank is really shine a spotlight on those stories and show eaters and policy makers and the donor communities what’s really working on the ground and what has a lot of potential to be replicated and scaled up. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, so you co-founded Food Tank with a friend of yours, or was it just another person you met along the way, or who’d you found Food Tank with? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Our co-founder is Ellen Gustafson, and she and I would keep running into each other at different times because we were often the only sort of youngish people on panels with a lot of old stalwarts of the food and ag and development communities and we really wanted to create something new and exciting and put a fresh perspective on these issues. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, I’m on your website now. It is just gorgeous. I’m a huge fan and I’m signed up to your newsletter, which I get all the time and for our listeners who want to follow along as we chat today, it’s www.foodtank.org so take us through this, Danielle. What are the most important issues today in food and agriculture? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: You know, we’re highlighting a couple of different core areas. One for us is food waste. We had an event last month in New York City that really highlighted the importance of preventing food loss and food waste. About 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year. We’re also working on cultivating the next generation of farmers and putting our focus on reuse. One of the things that I’m most excited about that we’re doing right now is focusing on the International Year of Family Farming. That will be launched in 2014 and what we’ve been doing is really building up and working with the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization to collaborate on this project and again, it really highlights the importance of family farming around the world, not just for food and nutrition security but for income generation, for social stability, and for really protecting biodiversity in our natural resources. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Two things: Explain a little bit further family farming. What does that mean and how does that tie to International Family Farming Year? How can we, your listeners and people who are fans of what you’re doing, help out and learn more about family farming? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Absolutely. Family farmers, the definition is very loose but we’re classifying them as the 500 million farmers around the world who are generally farming on two hectares of land or less so it’s about five acres. These 500 million folks are feeding the world. Their contributions feed about two billion people or contribute to the livelihood of two billion people worldwide and they’re often ignored. A lot of the investment, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, is not in smallholder farms. It’s in some of the new technologies that governments and development agencies think will be the silver bullets for ending poverty and hunger. Unfortunately again, agricultural investments in the smallholder have diminished and it’s only been since 2007 and 2008, when the food and financial crisis began, that we started paying attention to smallholder farmers again so this International Year of Family Farming is designated by the United Nations. Every year, they pick a special topic to focus on. This year, it was quinoa. The year before, it was cooperatives so International Year of Family Farming is just an opportunity for us all to recognize the importance of family farming. In the United States, we know that family farms have decreased since the 1980s. The average age of farmers in the United States is about 57 years old and farms have gotten bigger here and families have often been pushed off their farms because of poor weather or poor economic returns. Last year, the drought that hit the United States really put a lot of smaller and medium scale and some larger farms out of business in the United States because the farms couldn’t cope and what we’re trying to emphasize is that by focusing on family farms and recognizing the contributions they make, we can really do a lot to make sure that they get the investments they need. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk some more about doing a lot. I love that. What can consumers do when they learn more from your great organization, Food Tank? And for our listeners out there, we’ve got Danielle Nierenberg back on the show. She’s the co-founder of Food Tank and it’s FoodTank.org. What can consumers do to become part of the solution? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Well, one of the biggest steps we can make is just really recognizing that our food comes from not only farms but from people and really putting a human face to the food that we eat, whether you’re able to shop from a farmers market in your community or a farm stand that you see on the side of the road or ask your supermarket where your food is coming from, just creating more awareness, educating your self and whenever you can, contributing to the local economy. Those farmers are part of your community and the more that you can support them, the better. We also need to not only vote with our forks, but we also need to vote with our votes and really make sure that we’re voting policy makers into office who are concerned about agriculture and concerned about maintaining family farms in the United States. Our country was built on farming and we really need to recognize that it’s an important part of our history and it’s an important part of improving our health and our own livelihood. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, Food Tank is helping right now move the mission forward for International Family Farming Year but let’s go back to what our first interview covered more, Danielle. What’s the macro? Talk a little bit about Food Tank’s mission and what other goals and initiatives you’re working on right now to help move the needle and change the world every day. DANIELLE NIERENBERG: You know, Food Tank’s mission is really to create a better food system and we do this by highlighting an researching economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable way of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty throughout the world and we’re convening individuals and organizations and research and data to really make this food system better and to push these initiatives forward. If you look at what’s going on in the world, we have about one billion people who are hungry. We have 1.5 billion people who are obese. Two billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Seventy percent of global water use is used in agriculture. We’re losing natural resources at an astonishing rate and we’re obviously not doing something right. The food system is broken. We’re good at filling people up but we’re not actually good at nourishing them and so with our efforts in highlighting these stories of hope and success, we’re able to show what’s working in the world and really help push the conversation forward and really highlight how the communities aren’t always investing in the right things and that they need to. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your site now, of course, and like I shared with our listeners, FoodTank.org. You have partners. You have volunteers. Are you looking for more corporate partners and are you looking for more volunteers to join your mission? DANIELLE NIERENBERG: You know, we’re not really looking for corporate partners in the sense that we want their funding but we’re looking for really highlighting what businesses are doing. I think a lot of folks in the sustainable agriculture community have really ignored the roles that business can play. There are so many great small and medium and larger businesses and corporations that are trying to do the right things and some of them are doing it well and some aren’t so we really want to highlight how the private sector can make a big dent in creating a better food system and in terms of volunteers, we’re looking for folks who have a variety of skills, whether they’re interested in helping write for our website or contributing to our resource database, which right now, has about 1,200 entrees and we really hope to create a central clearinghouse for the best information on agrocoelogical practices that are available on the web and really bring them together so that whether you’re a farmer or a consumer or a policy maker or a donor, you can come to our site and really find the information that you need. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and of course, you have over 100,000 subscribers to your newsletter, which I’m one of them, and so people can sign up for that. They could also donate on your website and they can get a lot of information. I’m on there right now. There’s a lot of young ladies in this world, Danielle. Our show broadcasts nationally and it gets uploaded to iTunes and it goes around the world and we’ve got about three minutes left. Can you share backwards, you’re very young still but there’s a lot of young women that are in their teens struggling because they want to really do something meaningful when they’re making their college choice or graduate school choice and they want to not just go work for a big company or go into a profession that they’re really not that interested in but has good money. They want to change the world. Share some of your thoughts on that kind of journey, the journey you’ve taken, so that other young women can follow your lead and become the next Danielle Nierenberg. DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Oh, gosh. You know, I think everyone has to make their own choices and I remember telling my parents I’d made up my major in undergrad and it was environmental policy and government and they were excited for me but years later, my mom said, ‘We wondered how you were going to make money with that,’ and so it’s hard to make the choices that you feel passionate about in the world, especially with our economy the way we are about money and I think what’s exciting at this particular point in time is that the food system really provides so much opportunity for folks, whether you want to be a researcher or a writer like I am or someone who is into baking artisanal bread or if you want to be a farmer. Now is the time. There is so much interest and so much passion around these issues and one of the things that we’ve tried to emphasize is that agriculture can only be the solution, whether you’re talking about unrest in the developing world or employment in the United States or climate change, agriculture can really provide a lot of solutions to these problems and so I think that’s so exciting and I really encourage people in their teens or twenties to follow what you believe in. If you’re doing what you love, the money will follow. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s such good advice and I really believe and I have a daughter and I tell my daughter and I tell other young women that work for our company or our associated companies that I think we’re really moving into the generation of women and there’s very few glass ceilings left, very soon possibly going to be a woman President of the United States. There are women leaders around the world now. Not many glass ceilings left and I think women are going to be the leaders in some many ways, including sustainability and agriculture. You’re one of them and we’re so thankful for your time again today. For our listeners out there to learn more about all the great work Danielle and her co-founder have done and are doing every day, please go to www.foodtank.org and see that work and Danielle Nierenberg, we’re so proud to have you back on. You’re always welcome to come back on Green is Good. You’re a sustainability superstar and truly living proof that green is good. DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Thank you so much.