Danielle Nierenberg in conversation
For anyone interested in what shapes our food systems, the work of Danielle Nierenberg and her organisation Food Tank are essential reading.
Nierenberg started the US not-for-profit in 2013 with Bernard Pollack, with the aim of using research and storytelling to solve the interrelated problems of obesity, poverty and hunger. Nierenberg has been passionate about our food and agricultural systems since she was a teenager and has been lucky enough to make this her life’s work.
We sat down with Nierenberg, a speaker at Global Table presents Seeds & Chips – The Global Food Innovation Summit, to talk about why storytelling is a powerful tool in social change, what keeps her up at night, and the battles she’s fighting in her own refrigerator.
You’re a big believer in storytelling as a way to better understand complex issues. How did you come to the realisation that was the best way to do this?
The importance of storytelling became so relevant to me just meeting with people on the ground all over the world. I had this incredible opportunity to travel to 70+ countries and just listen to people: listen to farmers, listen to scientists, listen to activists and youth groups and really learn from that. Telling their stories and giving them a voice has been so important to what Food Tank does. We’re trying to uplift their individual efforts and organisations and accomplishments so they get to a wider audience.
In your experience, what’s the best book or article or podcast or documentary you’ve seen that does that storytelling really well?
Very early on when I was a teenager and became interested in these issues, the most relevant writer for me was Frances Moore Lappé, who with her husband at the time started an organisation called Food First. In her book Diet for a Small Planet, she told the story of how and what we eat and how it’s grown and how it impacts the environment so well that I think it really influenced my whole life. I read it when I was 15. It really made me decide what I wanted to do. And writing and communications and research were part of that.
What issue is keeping you up at night in food and agriculture right now?
People are always asking me “What do you think is the biggest problem?” There are so many, right? It’s climate change, the Amazon is burning, hurricanes, etcetera.
But the biggest issue for me continues to be the inability for us to recognise the importance of women in the food system. They need to be valued for their contributions and, without their leadership, we’re really ignoring them at our own peril. We need to invest in women in agriculture, not just as farmers and gatekeepers of nutrition, as cooks, and helping take care of children and elders, but for their own intrinsic value. So, yes, I think the lack of women’s equality worldwide is the thing that continues to bother me the most.
You spoke about this topic on a panel yesterday called “On the heels of innovation: women leading the global food revolution”. What sort of tangible solutions do you see out there?
I think the solutions around making sure that women are heard include things like having a panel that I was on yesterday of women leaders in different sectors – the not-for-profit sector, the farming sector, technology, corporate leadership.
We also had a 17-year-old on the panel who was one of the Teenovators at the event – she’s a young farmer. It was so incredible to have her perspective. She was eloquent and able to tell her story and sort of be a role model for other girls. It’s giving me chills right now to think of her because she was amazing. She held her own – we didn’t have to hold that space for her, she took it over.
In addition to your work at Food Tank, you also conduct field research. Is that still the case?
I used to do it a lot more. A lot of what I do now is attending conferences, but my heart and soul lies in being able to visit farmers and researchers on the ground and tell their stories, give them to a wider audience. I’ve gotten to travel all over the world and meet so many interesting people. If you’d asked me when I was 16 what I wanted to do, I’m able to do it. Not many people get to say that.
Tell us about some research you’re working on now.
We’re working on so many different pieces for Food Tank. One thing is a book around food waste, interviewing different experts around their really differing views about how you tackle this problem. The book has a wide range of viewpoints, some that are really unexpected, not your usual suspects around food loss and food waste, so that’s been really interesting to learn about. It should be coming out next year.
The Sustainable Development Goals are a big discussion point over the next three days. How do we get more businesses and institutions to buy in to the Goals?
I think we need more uncommon collaboration: getting people together who otherwise would not speak to one another. Howard Shapiro spoke this morning and he’s been at the forefront of creating those uncommon collaborations: corporations, food justice advocates and farmers all in the same room. Food Tank’s really taken on Howard’s leadership on that and we do that through convening.
The Sustainable Development Goals are sort of common sense if you think about it. Women’s equality, zero hunger, protecting water and biodiversity – those are all things, no matter what political sphere we’re in or what side of the debate we’re on, that we can get around as goals.
What’s been the most exciting change you’ve seen in agriculture since you started Food Tank in 2013?
There are a couple. If you’d asked me when I first started Food Tank whether I’d be engaging so much of the business community as I am now, I would have said you were crazy. But I think it’s important, as we just talked about, to bring those different voices to the table.
The opportunity that different kinds of technologies hold has also been really interesting for me to learn more about. Technology is not a silver bullet and not all technologies are good, but I think that there’s a way to combine high and low tech, and combine indigenous knowledge and traditional knowledge with some of the advancements that we’re seeing with smart phone technology or drones or Big Data. Those are really exciting innovations to me.
Is there one innovation or change you’d like to see adopted more widely?
I’m going to go back to women. We need to respect and value the role of women in the food system and in every part of our lives.
What’s one thing you’ve had to make a conscious effort to remove from your shopping list?
I’ve been vegetarian for a very long time; since I read Diet for a Small Planet in fact. My issue is that I get so excited about food. I go to the grocery store or the farmers’ market or the co-op and I just want to buy everything I see. So I’ve really tried to stop buying so much food in the last few years, especially because I travel constantly. When I can, I eat it before I leave or try to save it or preserve it in different ways, canning tomatoes and things that I buy too much of, or try to use the freezer more efficiently.
I’m not good at it yet and I think recognising that we’re all not perfect but we can try is part of it.
What’s your favourite fact about the food and agriculture industry?
Women make up 43% of the global agriculture workforce, but they don’t get the same resources as male farmers. I’m obsessed with women in agriculture. When we picture a farmer, all of us still picture a man. Recognising that women make up half of the world’s farmers, at least, is really something that more of us should know about.
See the latest Food Tank research, news and events at foodtank.com