Food Tank: Storytelling to Inspire Food System Change
Danielle Nierenberg is president and co-founder of the non-profit organization Food Tank, which focuses on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters. Prior to starting Food Tank, Danielle spent 2 years traveling to more than 60 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America, where she met with people from diverse backgrounds and fields to look at what methods are working, around the world, in the quest to alleviate hunger and poverty without jeopardizing our environment.
Danielle noticed that changemakers within the food system are often good at identifying problems, but not always so good at coming up with solutions. So in 2013, Danielle and others created Food Tank, a nonprofit think tank focusing on stories of hope and success in the food system, both at home and worldwide. Food Tank’s purpose is large and broad: To share knowledge of what’s working on the ground so that others can use it in their own communities. To provide a network of big thinkers to help each other look beyond the looming problems to find the solutions. To inspire positive action.
Often, it’s not a matter of creating solutions, but of recognizing them. “I think we dismiss farmers in the developing world because we think we have a lot to teach them. And I think now with things like climate change and water scarcity and extreme weather events, we have a lot to learn from farmers in other parts of the world,” says Danielle. “That’s where I see the real opportunity.”
Even if you’re not working within the food system, you can be part of these solutions. Danielle discusses how consumers who are invested in the Good Food Movement are encouraged to “vote with their dollars” by purchasing fair, sustainable, responsibly sourced food.
But she explains that simply voting with our dollars is not enough, we also have to “vote with our votes.” That is, vote for candidates—at all levels of government—who believe in a more sustainable food system.
Danielle sees a shift happening in the food system. “If we seize it, then local and regional food systems or organic food won’t be something that was trendy for a while. It’ll be something that’s inherent in how we produce and consume food.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Danielle Nierenberg, president and co-founder of Food Tank. Danielle has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of industrial farming in the developing world, and innovations in sustainable agriculture. And her knowledge of global agricultural issues have been cited widely in more than 8,000 major print and broadcast outlets worldwide. It is such an honor to have you with us here today, Danielle. Welcome.
DANIELLE NIERENBERG: Oh, thank you. The honor is mine. Thanks for having me.
AOC: So, Danielle, I’m going to call you Dani because that’s how it is, right?
DN: Perfect, perfect!
AOC: For our listeners who don’t know what Food Tank is, can you give us just—what is it? What did you start here?
DN: Well, what we tried to do with Food Tank when we were founded in 2013 was to have an organization that focused on stories of hope and success in the food system, both internationally and domestically, and to give our readers an idea of what’s working on the ground. And we did that because, you know, for a long time I worked in an environmental organization, and I found that we were really good about analyzing the problems and telling people what was wrong, but we weren’t so good about highlighting the solutions. And I wanted to flip that on its head a little bit and show people what was working and provide some inspiration and some ideas and give a platform to organizations and individuals who were doing good work but don’t get the attention or resources or investment that they need to scale up and out in different ways so that they can make a bigger impact.
AOC: So that was 2013, you had this idea. And now, four years later, wow, Food Tank has just blossomed, and people have come to many, many summits over the several years. It’s become quite the institution in such a short time. How did that happen?
DN: You know, it’s hard for me to say. I think we hit a nerve with a lot of people because I think people are craving—for a lack of a better word—more of that hope that we’ve been sort of missing. Especially now, given our current political and economic and environmental climate, I think people want to hear from the voices that they never hear from. You know, we’ve made a really big effort to interview hundreds of farmers all over the world, to try to give the voiceless, the people who don’t often have a chance to share their viewpoints, a way to do that, and then share that information with our audience.
AOC: Right. So yeah, I mean people, when people find out, “Oh, there are things that we can do,” that’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? Before you started Food Tank you spent some time, a couple years anyway, traveling all over the world and talking to farmers and to scientists, researchers, and government leaders, and finding out about those solutions and hearing those stories. Were you gathering them in your pocket so that you could say, “Oh, there’s something to do with this work”? Tell us about those travels.
DN: Sure, I mean, I’ve had this extraordinary opportunity now to travel to 70-plus countries, as you said, interview all these amazing people. And I don’t think I really… I mean, they’re the ones who taught me that hope was out there. I’ve been traveling to sub-Saharan Africa for a lot of years now and I think, like most of us, considered it a place that was sort of devoid of hope. And being able to really sort of truth-seek and see what was actually working. I mean, granted, there are a lot of terrible things going on in the world and especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa, with conflict and disease and all sorts of other issues. But I think the ability to actually listen to people and not have preconceived notions, I think that’s what I learned from spending roughly two years without…sort of going from place to place and listening to people and having that listening tour. That really just helps me see what was actually happening. And I came away much more hopeful than when I first started on that journey.
AOC: One of the things that interesting to me about all the Food Tank summits is that you bring in people from across the spectrum in the food world. So it’s not just all the organic people or all the people from Monsanto—which is a lot of times how you find food conferences these days, right? And you sort of bring in the whole spectrum, from people who are working in conventional ag, people who are in sustainable ag in certain ways, organic, all kinds of different people. Tell me, is part of this, this influence of going around the world and saying, hey, there’s lots of different ways to look at things? Or what’s your strategy with that?
DN: What we have found, I mean, as someone who considers herself now a professional conference goer, I see what you just described. You go to a conference where everyone always agrees with everyone else, no matter what side they’re on. And we decided that if we were going to do events, that they had to get beyond that. We had to invite sort of the unusual suspects. We had to force people who normally wouldn’t be in the same room together, let alone share the same stage, force them to have dialogues. That’s why we’ve brought together Food Justice advocates with representatives from Cargill or Monsanto, as you said before. Or at our D.C. summits we make a really big effort to have Republicans and Democrats both on stage, and again, force them to talk to one another.
Because I think if you’d asked me this 15 years ago when I first started out in the food movement, I would’ve said to you, “I don’t want to engage with corporations. There’s nothing good there. We can’t sort of sell ourselves out as a food movement.” And I’ve really changed and evolved in my thinking on that. I mean, if we’re not engaging with industry or the people who disagree with us, then we’re only talking to each other, and the real change that we need to see happen in the food system is not going to happen.
And so when Food Tank started, I made this sort of New Year’s resolution to myself, because we started in January of 2013. And I said to myself and my board that whatever I was invited to by corporations, I would go to. And so I spoke at Bayer Crop Science’s Annual Conference, which was not the friendliest audience until they got a chance to know me. I went on a trip with Cargill to Zambia, in South Africa, to see some of their operations. I’ve engaged with Monsanto and visited some of their facilities in California and Missouri. So I’ve been really trying to look at the, what a lot of people I think in the food movement would call “the enemy,” and really try to find some common ground. I don’t think we’re ever going to agree on everything, but they’re realizing that corporations are not the… You know, we paint them as evil—they’re just people too, right? They’re people who believe in what they’re doing. And the more we can sort of humanize it, the more we can break down those barriers that keep us from talking and listening to each other.
AOC: Yeah, you bet. I think it’s probably you have a pretty unique perspective in that as well, because having spent time with these groups, you do see that humanity and you see the things that they are doing that are right, because of course not anybody does everything allwrong. And so you have a much more nuanced and complex understanding of how to be effective in communicating and how to be effective in helping people understand the benefits and consequences of how they choose to farm or be in the world. And as you say, these corporations, they have a lot of influence in the food system, right?
DN: Absolutely, I mean, for better or for worse. And you see companies like Pepsi-Co or Nestlé getting involved in sort of food incubators and food start-ups. They are the ones who can have a lot of the influence on where the food system goes in terms of sustainability. And I think that’s so important to remember, because they have so much money. And I think that there’s ways that they don’t use it for good, but there are certainly ways that they’re using it to really improve things and help smaller-scale entrepreneurs and businesses get off the ground. So I don’t want to greenwash a lot of the stuff that they’re doing, but they can do good in ways that the nonprofit sector or smaller companies can’t always do.
AOC: Mm-hmm. So if I’m just a food consumer and I eat and I buy food, and I pay attention to my family, and I’m not in the food world but I care deeply about it, how do I affect those kinds of bigger decisions, those more global decisions that are being made? How do we influence the food system, as people who eat?
DN: You know, I think for years we’ve been told to vote with our forks and choose the kinds of food, and spend our consumer dollars on the sort of food system that we believe in, whatever that means. Does it mean eating a more plant based diet? Does it mean buying from local farmers, or make sure that you’re buying grass-fed and pasture-raised dairy and other animal products? I think that’s so important. We consumers have a lot of power, especially now, because you see so much consumer demand for “better” food and more sustainable foods and more transparency in the food system.
But, you know, what I think a lot of us have to come realize, and it’s not rocket science, is it’s not just enough to vote with our dollars. We have to vote with our votes, and really put people in office, not just at the national level but really at the local level, you know, with food policy councils and town council members—to really vote for people who believe in a more sustainable food system. And I think, again, that’s more important than ever with our current political climate. With the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Agreement, you’re going to see more cities and towns taking the lead on things like climate change and creating more sustainable food systems.
You have great leaders in place like people like Holly Freishtat, who’s the food policy director in Baltimore, who is working to put local representatives in place so that they can influence what kinds of food start-ups are in their community, what kinds of grocery stores or other markets are available, so that people really have a voice in what shapes the food system in Baltimore. And so I think, you know, we’re going to see… I hate that so much of the onus right now is on consumers and citizens, but I don’t think we have a choice, because it’s really the only way, again, to make change. And there needs to be systems in place that allow for that to…for consumers and what I like to call “eaters” to have that power.
AOC: Right, and I think you’re touching on a lot of things there. So the new administration and the ways that they are just undermining all kinds of things that are important for healthy and functioning food and environmental systems. Lots of people looking to find ways to help alleviate hunger, poverty, finding healthy nutritious food for all people. One of the things that I wanted to ask you—and of course the new administration, maybe this question changes everything with that going on. But even before that, you know, we have, in the United States, we have a country that is very wealthy and has a lot of resources, and yet we have a food system here that is still very broken. And I guess I wanted to ask you—you know, you have a lot of experience in different countries and the different ways that things work. Do you see anything so obvious in this country that you think, wow, how can this be, that with all of these resources and all of this—you know, we have land, we have water, we have kind of everything we need—and yet there are people who are going hungry, people who are malnourished, we don’t treat our land well. So is there something that you can point to and say, “Gosh, I wish our country did this like they do over here”? Is there anything like that?
DN: Gosh, that’s such an interesting question. And I think what you just described—we have so much land, we have so many great resources, we have people who are interested in a more sustainable food system, but yet we’re not there. And I think part of the reason may be because I think we forget that the United States is still such a young country, and we’re still evolving in our food traditions and our food culture.
There are examples that we can certainly learn from. I think one thing that Americans probably don’t do well is understand that we’re so used to telling the rest of the world what to do. We’re used to saying, okay, this technology in farming is something that other countries should learn from, whether it’s biotech or precision agriculture or whatever, things that do have potential. But we’re not good at learning from sort of the global south. I think we dismiss farmers in the developing world because we think we have a lot to teach them. And I think now, with things like climate change and water scarcity and extreme weather events, we have a lot to learn from farmers in other parts of the world.
And I think that’s where I see the real opportunity, with American farmers sort of being able to understand that farmers in the developing world have been dealing with some of these issues for a long time, and they’ve been able to adapt and mitigate things that American farmers are just now learning how to do. And so being able to have an open mind about learning from other cultures and other countries, and being open to that, I think, is going to be really important in the years to come.
AOC: Okay, I mean, you just talked about the diversity of history and thought, and these different kinds of things. And we have such a vast country, 350 million people in a place, a vast, vast land. There’s all different kinds of things happening all across the country in the food system. But is there something that, if everybody did this—you know, if everybody paid more attention to the environmental impact or, you know… I guess let’s talk about that. Is that something that’s… You’ve talked about how things are changing and they’re changing fast, and we need to respond to them—the climate change that’s happening here. Would you say that paying attention to the environment is one of those things that, if everybody did it…?
DN: Definitely. If we paid attention to the environmental impacts of our food choices, both in terms of production and consumption, I think a lot could change. But I think it is more nuanced that just thinking about the environment, because I think, at the end of the day, if consumers can’t afford food and farmers can’t make money, then anything we do for the environment is for naught, right? So we have to think of this in a very ho—I don’t if holistic is the right word, but in a very sort of broad way. We have to have a food system that is environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. So we have to protect our natural resources, we have to create resiliency in the food system, we have to build soils, we have to make sure that we’re regenerating rather than depleting our agricultural landscapes.
We have to have a food system where food is not only accessible but affordable. And that means lots of different things, whether we’re talking about having a living wage or a minimum wage across the board so people can actually afford food and be able to find it. And we need farmers who are making money. I think it’s easy to say, “Oh gosh, farmers are aging and we need more young farmers.” And it’s great that we have so much interest in the United States among a growing sector of young people who want to get involved in farming, but they don’t have access to land. They can’t afford it. They lack the mentorship and education and business skills that they need to do farming well.
And then, on the socially sustainable side, we have so many issues regarding workers and laborers, whether it’s people working in slaughterhouses across the United States or processing plants—which is our most dangerous job in the food system, and really overall, if you’re looking at injury rates. But we depend on immigrants for harvesting and processing and serving our foods, yet we treat them terribly. And so we need to really think about all those things when we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to go forward. And I think that’s where the political will and leadership really needs to come from the top. And we don’t have that.
I’m concerned about the next farm bill. And are we just going to be trying to hang on to what was gained over the last eight years? Which, frankly, wasn’t that much, even with a friendly administration and people like Michelle Obama kind of leading the charge. But I’m really concerned about how we can make sure that we’re still working towards a food system that can really, not work just for Americans, but work for the world. So I think that’s where my fears are really high right now.
AOC: If you are just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Danielle Nierenberg, who is the president and co-founder of Food Tank. Today we’re talking about Food Tank, about our food system and much more.
So one of the things that you just were talking about is the ways that the food system connects to climate, to jobs, to the economy. Food touches every bit of our social and economic and justice systems, doesn’t it?
DN: Absolutely. You know, for a long time I don’t think most eaters and consumers understood that. Food was food, and the rest of the economy was the rest of the economy. And I think people have this sort of growing sense that, oh gosh, what I eat impacts all of these other things, or what farmers are producing impacts all these other things. And that’s something that’s, again, evolved just over the last 15 years, as long as I’ve been working on this sort of thing professionally. And that’s great to see.
What I’d like to see happen, I think, the interest in local and sustainable food systems has been sort of “me” focused. People like to eat organic food or eat locally grown food because they feel good about it, or they think it makes them healthier, or in some cases they can brag about it, right? You know, I talked to my farmer at the farmers’ market and she told me about this great new recipe, or I was able to buy these really fancy vegetables that no one else is eating.
AOC: Social cachet.
DN: Right, absolutely! And I think right now we have this opportunity to sort of turn the focus more globally—to turn it from seeing how the food system, eating these things, impacts me personally, to how it affects the world at large and can impact broader social and economic change. And I think that’s the opportunity we have right now. And the urgency—because of things like climate change and because of our political climate, we need to make that happen sooner. Because we have this great opportunity, right? And if we seize on it, then the local and regional food systems, or organic food, won’t be something that was trendy for a while. It will be something that’s just inherent in how we produce and consume food.
AOC: We talked a little bit about how the consumer is really driving things. And what I hear you saying is yes, let’s drive, but let’s drive well. And I remember one of the news magazines had your new boss on the cover, and it was “The Consumer.” And the consumer’s more sophisticated, understands more than ever, and still what you’re saying is, “Step it up, folks!” We still have to keep connecting these dots to the larger and larger issue. We have to keep thinking bigger and keep thinking outside of ourselves and our little worlds to think about how do we influence the bigger picture. How do people do that?
DN: Yeah, it’s hard, right? And again, this is where I get a little bit irritated, right? Because we put everything on the consumer. It’s up to you and I to investigate everything that’s in our food, because if we don’t—
AOC: Who knows where it’s coming from?
DN: Right! And so I think of people like my mom, who to me is awesome. She’s one of the smartest people I know, but it’s only over the last two years that she’s become interested in kind of the things that I’ve been talking about my whole life now. And so, you know, but she gets frustrated because the labels on things that she doesn’t understand. She’s concerned about what cage-free means versus pasture-raised eggs, you know, all of these—
AOC: Oh my gosh. It’s a part-time job, right?
DN: Right, absolutely! And so even for all of us who are in it every day, it’s really hard to keep up with what’s going on. And so I think we don’t have a choice—consumers have to keep sort of on top of things. But that’s why it’s important for the organizations that Food Tank tries to create a platform for—really well-known organizations, like Food and Water Watch, or the Natural Resources Defense Council, but also less well-known ones who are trying to educate everyone about these things. You have a lot of consumer watchdog groups. You have local food groups who are trying to educate, whether it’s in their village or their town, about these issues.
One of the things that I’m proud that Food Tank has been able to do over the last couple of years is work with the James Beard Foundation on what we call the Good Food Org Guide, where we’re working with a group of advisors who are helping us find the most impactful national and state-by-state organizations who are working on a lot of these issues, whether it’s nutrition or transparency or true cost accounting, or whatever. To be able to provide a guide where people can search state-by-state and national groups who are working on these issues.
AOC: So can you say that again—what is that guide called?
DN: It’s called the Good Food Org Guide, and Food Tank partners with the James Beard Foundation. It’s available on our website. Again, you can search state-by-state and also look at national groups, depending on where you live and what you’re interested in. And we’re working on expanding it this year. It’s released every October in conjunction with the James Beard Food Leadership Conference and Awards.
AOC: Well, so that’s a resource. Because as you say, I mean, it is a lot of pressure on a consumer, and there’s definitely the feeling of throwing up your hands and saying, “I’m just going to go get a burger, thanks.” Right?
AOC: So we have to keep helping people make it easier to make good choices and figure out what that even means.
Dani, I just have really appreciated our conversation here today, and I thank you for taking the time. If our listeners would like to learn more about Food Tank and your work, where should they go?
AOC: Thanks, Dani.
DN: Thank you so much, Anne!
AOC: And thank you, listeners, for joining us today, and we’ll see you next week.
You can listen to Rootstock Radio on the go at iTunes and Stitcher. Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.