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Plant Chat: Danielle Nierenberg, Co-Founder of Food Tank

Sharon Palmer

I’m really excited to interview Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank—where she is now president. I’ve been following her work in the Good Food Movement for years, so it was really fun to sit down and chat with her about what’s going on in the sustainable food scene. First of all, let me tell you more about Food Tank, which is a non-profit organization focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters. Prior to starting Food Tank, Danielle spent two years traveling to more than 60 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America, meeting with farmers and farmers’ groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and government leaders, students and academics, along with journalists, documenting what’s working to help alleviate hunger and poverty, while protecting the environment. Danielle has authored or contributed to several major reports and books, and her knowledge of global agriculture issues has been cited widely in more than 8,000 major print and broadcast outlets worldwide. Danielle has an M.S. in Agriculture, Food, and Environment from the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and spent two years volunteering for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. Danielle also wrote the newly-released book Nourished Planet, which discusses creating a more economically viable, environmentally sustainable, and socially just food and agriculture system around the globe. It is an essential read for farmers, eaters, businesses, policymakers, academics, funders, dietitians, and anyone interested in contributing to a food system that is better for us all.

How did you first get started as an advocate for a healthier food system?

I have to go way back to Missouri, where I grew up. I have always been an environmentalist. When I was about 15, I picked up Frances Moore Lappe’s book, Diet for a Small Planet, at a garage sale. I remember reading it in bed and being so inspired by it. I grew up in a small farming community, and I was the kid of a farmer—every one in my community was involved in farming in some way. But I didn’t want anything to do with it. I went to a liberal arts college, and then I went to the Peace Corps, and I got to know all of these farmers who showed me the intersection between agriculture, human health and the environment, and it was really inspiring. I had that “ah ha” moment—an epiphany. I just came to the slow realization that farmers were not as dumb as I once thought they were; I learned that they were brilliant, and I wished that I had listened to them earlier. In Letters to a Young Farmer, I wrote about this.

So, I started out as an environmentalist and then went to the food side of it. I made up my own major with political science, government and science, and then got a MS in Environmental Nutrition at Tufts. Right after grad school, I worked in a think tank in 2011-2012. I had always done a lot of on the ground research; I studied factory farms in Asia and in Latin America, and had received a grant to study ag innovation in sub-Saharan Africa—visiting farmers, and working with women’s groups, policy makers, dietitians, and a range of food stakeholders, learning from them. This is what inspired Food Tank to form. I had seen a lot of problems about the environment, across many food issues. I got a little bit of funding and investment, and Food Tank was born out of this idea. In classrooms, town halls, and in a wider audience, we helped people understand what we can do to nourish the planet. We provided articles on our website, and a podcast will launch in a few weeks. We reach people in different ways; we produce op eds, articles, and research reports. We are active on social media, and our website is a wealth of information, providing people with tools to learn more.

What are the goals of Food Tank?

We started In 2013, so Food Tank is five years old. We want to really be a platform for the Good Food Movement, by highlighting the work going on—on the ground—and targeting a wide audience of policy makers, regular people, the farming community, and readers from everywhere in the world. We handle a lot of requests to make connections, we convene the Food Tank Summit, and we are a platform and clearing house for information. We fund our programs through our members, who give from $5 to $2000 as Food Tank members, and they are just regular folks from all over world. We have a foundation with small families who support our work, and we have partnerships with research institutes, and food and agriculture organizations.

What are the primary issues going on with our current food system that we should all be concerned about?

I think the biggest one for me that I think a lot about is that we really have a food system that is about filling people up, but not nourishing them. We produce commodity foods that are full of calories, that are unhealthy and cheap to distribute, like refined starchy, nutrition-less foods and fried foods. We need to turn this food system into something else; I hope we can switch the paradigm to focus on what nourishes people; to focus on foods that provide people what they need to eat to live healthful lives. There will be 10 billion people in 2050, and we need to produce more food, but the amount of food lost and wasted is 1.3 billion tons of food per year. If we wrangle this problem, then we wouldn’t need to produce as much food.

What are some of the major actions that need to occur to address these issues?

So many people are doing it already. Just thinking more about your food, buying more whole and unprocessed foods, creating the time and ability to do this, figuring out how you can learn to cook from scratch—these are important things people can do. If you’re talking about people like me and you, it’s easy to change our eating habits; it’s easier to buy healthier food. But I am concerned about everyone having access and the ability to afford healthy food—we want everyone to eat well. Healthy food is not always available in all communities, in both rich and poor countries. We have to know if they have a working stove in their house. We can’t tell people to eat more lentils if they don’t have a stove—it’s not going to improve health in the system for everyone. We need to focus on the issues of food justice, and access affordability. Food waste and food loss can change right now, though. I know I’m guilty of buying too much at the farmers market, because it looks so good. We have to store things better, and make sure that our eyes are not bigger than our stomachs, and pay attention to the impact we have in our own kitchen.

What is in the main message in your book, Nourished Planet?

The main message is that we need to focus on nourishment and nutrition—the book really tackles food for all and food for health. I want to make sure that we will be able to provide the most nutritious foods, which are sustainable and the best for own health and the health of the planet. Plant-based diets are covered in the book, as well as foods for cultures. All of us have certain foods we love to turn to, that we grew up with. We want to remember foods that are part of the community and remember the history of foods that may have gone out of favor. Maybe there are foods that we don’t produce any more, but now, especially with climate change, pests and disease, many of these foods may be more resilient and withstand high temperatures, for example.

What are some things that registered dietitians can do to help make an impact on the food system?

Dietitians have such an important role, as they are working so closely with people in clinical settings. Dietitians can capture them earlier, rather than later. A lot of things in the book Nourished Plant may be helpful. For example, we collaborated with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition and their Double Pyramid, which compares the regular food pyramid from the 1980s, with whole grains, legumes, and other things on the bottom, which you should eat the most of; and then we switched it upside down to show which foods were best for the planet and that these foods are also best for health. This is an easy tool to understand, and shows you that you should eat more things like nuts, leafy greens, and sustainable fish, and that eating a lot of red meat and fatty, salty foods is not good for us, and places an extra burden on the planet.

How does plant-based eating fit into this scenario?

The Double Pyramid does a lot for promoting a plant-based diet. If you’d asked any of us 20 years ago if it would have such an impact, we wouldn’t have guessed it then. I think now with Silicon Valley and food technology, America is no longer thinking that a plant-based diet is unusual, or that it’s weird to be a vegan. More younger people are eating plant-based diet at least a couple of meals per week. It doesn’t matter if you are vegan or a hardcore carnivore, there are ways you can change your diet to reduce meat intake, and you are not going to drive ranchers out of business by doing so. It’s more of an issue on how we are refining the kinds of meat and animal products we produce, and reducing consumption so that we are not eating it every day, except maybe a couple of times per week, and understanding what kinds of meats are best to eat, such as Niman Ranch and organic meats, which we cover in the book.

What is your personal diet like?

I travel quite a bit, so I don’t get to cook for myself as often as I’d like to, and I’m always looking for plant-based options on airport menus. I’m always carrying around hummus and nuts, because I’m trying to eat as healthy as possible, whether I’m in Des Moines, Iowa or sub-Saharan Africa. When I am home, I like to cook and make big batches of things. I’m mostly plant-based; I really I have been vegetarian since I read Diet for a Small Planet, and that’s the choice I made because I have that luxury, and I’m trying to be as healthy as possible. Food waste is a big focus for Food Tank, and I struggle with my love for food and buying it without creating waste. I try to preserve things and freeze them to avoid waste.  I make very simple things. I don’t like a lot of fake meats or cheeses; I make a lot of stews, chilis, such as vegetarian sweet potato black bean chili, or a quinoa bowl filled with different things, it depends on what I have. I’m a sufficient cook but not a great one!

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